The political economy of scientific publishing, and the promise of diamond open access

The claim that scientific publishing is broken is not even surprising any more. There are a number of different problems. Some of these are epistemic: a large number of bad or totally meaningless articles is published every year, diluting the credibility of science; undue weight is given to sexy claims in a small number of shiny journals, whose articles are disproportionately likely to be discovered to be misleading or even fraudulent; negative results still often go unpublished, and so on. Some of the big problems are instead economic, and that’s what I want to talk about here.

Scientific publishing is hugely concentrated in the hands of a few big corporations: Wiley-Blackwell, Springer Nature, Elsevier, SAGE and Taylor & Francis have been estimated to control 75% of the market. More importantly, the profit margins of these companies are really large: estimates vary, but 30-50% for the major corporations in the sector is is typical. This gives them vastly higher profit margins than Apple, Google, Coca-Cola etc. Your local supermarket chain probably has a profit margin of a few percentage points at most.

One estimate of the size of the academic publishing industry I found is $19 billion per year. Applying a 40% profit proportion to this, we can say in a back-of-an-envelope way that international academia is giving away about $7.5 billion a year to a few large corporations, not to cover the costs of the services those corporations provide, but as rent. And you know how it is: $7.5 billion here, $7.5 billion there, and soon you can be talking real money. It is of the same order as the expenditure of the US National Science Foundation for 2020 ($8.3 billion). Europe’s premier research funder, the ERC, only gives out €2.2 billion in grants per year. One careful estimate was that, of the money spent on the social sciences in Austria, about a fourth went to servicing the publishing industry. And of course, this is not really our money: it is money from governments, effectively a public subsidy for a public good, a big chunk of which is going unproductively into corporate coffers. Governments could be getting billions of dollars more research for their money, and we could be giving more jobs to our students and post-docs; or they could get the same amount of research for a smaller subsidy and build more bike lanes.

Corporate profit was not always involved in the dissemination of academic knowledge, nor is it necessary that it be so. For those of you that do not know the history, the idea that academic communication belonged to corporations, and could be monetised for profit, was substantially due to Czech-British tycoon Robert Maxwell. He paved the way – in a context of rapid growth of academia in the second half of the twentieth century- by wooing academics, creating journals and charging subscriptions to access them (the story is told here). Fast forward, and funders and authors rightly began to baulk at publicly funded epistemic labour being sequestered behind paywalls. The resulting ‘open access’ movement has helped with the problem of reader access by bringing down the paywalls, but it has not helped with the problem of corporate rents. The big publishers still own the titles. They now charge ‘article processing fees’ to authors, on average a couple of thousand dollars, and protect their profit margins that way.

In an efficiently functioning market, these rates of profit could not exist. Why? Because other corporations should enter the market, offering the same service for a lower price and just a 30% profit rate (still not bad!), and capture the market; then still others should come in with a lower price still and just a 20% profit rate….and so on, until the rate of profit is delta: the minimal amount of profit that gets a capitalist out of bed in the morning. Academics would then be getting their publishing services for just fractionally above what it really costs to produce them. That’s how markets are supposed to work, and why certain people are so keen on them. But it is certainly not working here. Why?

Academics, when they submit a paper for publication, are not just looking for a company that will make a nice PDF and put it online on a reliable server. They could do that themselves. They are paying for someone to credential it: give it a status of being epistemically reliable, important, and generally worth reading. The irony of academic publishing is that the actual credentialling labour – the careful reading by an editor, the independent peer reviewing, the accumulated culture of good practice in the field – is not provided or even paid for by the profitable publishing corporation. It is done by other academics who do it without payment, or more precisely using the time already paid for by their university and government employers. The fruit of this labour is then privatised and sold by the publishing corporations we have become entangled with. The part of the value of publishing an article that it is not given for free by academic volunteers might be as low as a couple of hundred euros.

Because the credentialing value of a journal depends heavily on its established reputation in the field, authors are not elastic to price: they will not readily substitute a newer, cheaper journal for an existing over-priced one. When people are not elastic to price, markets fail, and socially efficient solutions are not found. Authors are, effectively, conservative and myopic: they care about getting this paper published and looking as good, from a credentialling perspective, as possible; this means they are doomed to stick with the established journals even at massive personal and collective cost (and, for the most prestigious credentialing by the shiniest journals, the article processing charge may be several-fold higher than the average). The collective consequences for our sector when we are all individually myopic in this way are not something we have thought about enough.

What we face is, exactly, the famous tragedy of the commons. If I get one paper into a reputed but overpriced journal in my field, all of the reputational and career benefit of this accrues to me privately (including to my students and co-authors: we are often doing this out of quite admirable concern for those close to us). However, the cost – that academia collectively continues to waste millions of dollars paying more for its publishing services than it needs to – is evenly distributed across the whole of the sector. For example, if spend some funds from a French funder on article processing charges, that funder can give out fewer grants. But that loss is distributed across all the researchers in France, whereas the reputational benefit of my publication flows wholly to me. So we end up with a situation where the commons – the public pot of research funding – is overgrazed, and the publishing corporations are getting fat.

The good news is that although common good resources are always vulnerable, tragedies are not actually inevitable. Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel memorial prize, indeed, for showing that, in fact, communities throughout the world do find various ways of making their commons sustainable (and, as she is famous for saying, if it works in practice, you can make it work in theory). We should be able to do likewise. It would be quite logical (helpful, even) for our funders and employers simply not to allow us to use their money or time on activities that create profit for publishing corporations. My employer, the CNRS, has made clear that whilst it wants us to publish our work open access, it does not want us to pay article processing fees (instead, it, along with other funders in Europe, wants to support not-for-profit journals directly). I hope other employers will follow suit, and even take a stronger line on this. One of the things about tragedies of the commons is that you do sometimes need to impose some constraints on individual behaviour, for the sake of the public good (and to make those constraints common knowledge in the form of norms and rules). This is obvious, since it is exactly the uncoordinated myopic activities of individuals that produces the tragedy in the first place.

The big question, of course, is: if not the status quo, then what? One of the issues is that there are multiple ideas in circulation about how to reform scientific publication, whereas we need to coordinate on one. Perhaps eventually we can abandon the plethora of different journals altogether, in favour of a single archive doing the combined job of preprint server, peer review forum, and publication venue of record. There are a few contenders for this already in operation, notably Peer Community In, which started out with a focus in ecology and biology, but can expand organically into any area. Others are the European Union’s Open Research Europe and the Wellcome Trust’s Wellcome Open Research. These latter two are restricted, for now, to reports of research that was funded by the respective organisations. However, whilst waiting for such a universal system to emerge, something we can all do rapidly, with minimal change to our working practices, is to support diamond open access journals as a first resort.

A diamond open access journal is a journal that is free to read, and does not charge authors any article processing fees. Where then is the money coming from, you might reasonably ask. The answer varies from journal to journal, but the actual costs, if much of the editorial work and peer reviewing is done by academics for free, are pretty modest, often amounting to editorial assistance and server space, plus the use of one of the open-source or not-for-profit content management platforms that already exist. Some funders (the CNRS included) figure that they can simply fund or co-fund these journals directly, and still save money compared to giving their people money to pay article processing fees to the big corporations. Other bodies support diamond journals just as a contribution to the common intellectual good. In the psychological sciences, quite a few of these journals exist already, are widely indexed, and are ready for us to use. I have published a separate post listing the main ones I know about and where to find them. If we can transition to using diamond open access journals over the next five years, we will free up an enormous saving for our funders, a saving that they will hopefully plough back in to jobs for young researchers, among other things. And, I would add, it would free us from the epistemic and other distortions our entanglement with for-profit publication has brought about too.

Something you might well be saying, and I would understand, is: that sounds very high-minded, but my student/post-doc/collaborator needs a job, and it will make a huge difference to the way they are evaluated to get their paper in X or Y traditional high-esteem journal. I (or they) just can’t afford to take the broader view. I absolutely recognise it from my own life. I would however make three points.

The first is that at least we could at least have the conversation every time we publish a paper. There are indeed times – perhaps many times, at first – where we will conclude that there are strong grounds for going with this or that traditional journal. Certainly, this is still happening in my life. But it need not be every time; sometimes all your co-authors have tenure or have already achieved visibility in that space. Maybe we can allow ourselves a certain number of dirty submissions a year, but go diamond for the rest. Corporate publishing sobriety should at least be part of the discussion, alongside other factors. Interestingly, during all my years in academia, with many dozens of co-authors, these kinds of ethical and political issues have almost never cropped up in discussions of publication strategy. It feels like we ought to try to change that.

Second, although the CV advantage of a prestigious or established journal is a real thing, it’s maybe not that big, in most cases. Sure, a paper in Nature, Science or PNAS is going to make people look twice; but do evaluators really notice or care about the difference between Cognition (corporate) and Open Mind (diamond), between Social Psychological and Personality Science (corporate) and the Journal of Social and Political Psychology (diamond)? The magnitude of the reputational difference is probably small–and might not even be in the direction you think.

Which leads me to my final point: the way people are evaluated is itself constantly evolving. The journals that are well-reputed now are not those that were well-reputed a decade ago, partly because of the choices we made. Without going all Anthony Giddens on you, we structure the field of credential value as well as being structured by it. A decade ago, people didn’t want to pre-register or share their data as they thought it could disadvantage them. What a weird idea that seems now, when it is common knowledge that good open science practices are one of the first things employers look for. Likewise, there could soon be a job market and professional premium for having adopted a thoughtful politique de la publication. We could help accelerate this cultural change. Senior people could go out of their way to support newer diamond initiatives, either with their submissions or their editorial activities.

There is always a risk, when you publish in a newer or unknown journal, that people think your paper is there because it was rejected by the better known ones. Something we could do, on our websites and in our talks, is to point out positive reasons why we choose this outlet (‘Journal of first choice’; ‘we chose this journal because it provides fee-free access to both readers and authors’, ‘we chose this journal because it is a non-profit that keeps resources within the scientific community’, ‘We chose it because of its commitment to open science and epistemology’, etc.). As we become more socially aware about the consequences of our publishing behaviour, it could be good to justify our our publication decisions in the way that we have become used to justifying sample sizes.

Companion post: list of diamond open access journals in psychology.