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In December, Memorial University in Newfoundland announced planned cuts to thousands of journal subscriptions. Soon after, the library and archives at Toronto's Ryerson University also said there would be similar cuts ahead due to an "enduring budget crisis" for academic libraries across the country.
The news brought into focus issues of control and ownership in academic publishing, particularly the struggle faced by academic libraries to maintain journal subscriptions in the face of rising costs imposed by a small number of companies and a low Canadian dollar.
If academic libraries are not able to subscribe to these journals, then this leaves students and faculty without access to valuable information.
For critics of the current system, large publishers provide little actual value and meagre services in light of profits earned, though that perception is not limited to academia.
In a report to investors on RELX Group, a Deustche Bank analyst found that "the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process" and that "if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40 per cent margins wouldn't be available."
In 2011, the British writer George Monbiot opined that "academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist" and represent "pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it."
The extent of corporate control
The study 'The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era' authored by researchers at the Université de Montréal, analyzed and tracked over time the share of literature published by the largest academic publishers, most of which are for-profit companies. It analyzed over 44 million documents using Web of Science (WoS), capturing a subset of periodicals that "are most cited and most visible internationally."
In natural and medical sciences disciplines, five major publishers accounted for 53 per cent of papers published in 2013, up from about 20 per cent in the early 1970s. In the social sciences, the largest publishing companies had an even larger share of total output at 70 per cent of papers.
Importantly, natural sciences were found to be somewhat more independent of big publishers due to the strength of their scientific societies. Topics in the social sciences -- health, families, politics and crime for example -- are by definition less fundamentally universal in character and more tied to individual national populations, leaving its scholarly societies smaller and less international.
Subsequently, they have been more fragmented and less able to remain as important independent publishers.
In both sets of disciplines, Reed-Elsevier (now RELX Group), Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Taylor-Francis were among the top five publishers, though the American Chemical Society was fourth place among scientific publishers in 2013.
Elsevier in particular has been the focus of a sustained boycott over its prices started by mathematician Timothy Gowers.
In the arts and humanities, lower-cost journals, a less-pressing need for recent findings and a greater reliance on books have kept patterns of ownership more widely dispersed: the top five commercial publishers comprised only 10 per cent and 20 per cent of arts and humanities papers, respectively, in 2013.
Solutions: open access, non-profits, nationalization, ending non-disclosure?
Vincent Larivière, one of the study's authors, emphasized that there are no easy solutions to the problems faced by academic libraries, who depend on budgets to make purchases and are "more or less helpless[.]"
"Basically, what [publishers] argue quite often is that they provided a lot of value-added," he said in a phone interview. However, he pointed out that the raw material and much of the quality control of the industry -- authoring and reviewing journal articles -- is provided for free by scholars. As print has declined, much of the traditional responsibilities of academic publishers have disappeared or become unnecessary.
"So the thing that they provide and [we] need is digital platforms, which, when you look at it another way, can be also provided freely. There are platforms, such as arXiv for physicists, that actually diffuse scientific knowledge without asking either the readers or the author to give any money," Larivière said.
The platform arXiv, which hosts electronic drafts uploaded by individual scientists, is owned by Cornell University and partly funded by the National Science Foundation.
Simultaneously, movements for open access have gained increasing support. Advocates want free, electronic access to scholarly literature. In February, Canada's three national granting agencies arrived at a common policy meant to promote open access. This is seen as a big step forward for public access to research in Canada.
"What we need more of are not-for-profit scientific societies that actually regain control of the publishing world," Larivière added.
As well, scientific societies can face a conflict of interest when criticizing academic publishers.
"There is a lot of hypocrisy and that needs to be said. ...At the moment, many scientific societies that have sold their journals or that have agreements with big publishers are making [a lot] of money from that. So, in my field the American Society for Information Science and Technology, we have our flagship journal and that journal is published by Wiley. And the scientific society is making quite a lot of money with the Wiley agreement. And so of course they say, 'we don't want to leave Wiley, because of them we're making money.' But also because of this agreement, libraries are getting bankrupt."
Outside of post-secondary education, some countries have nationalized parts of academic publishing.
At the primary school level, Hungary's state-owned, KELLO company was given exclusive access to the textbook market to combat "profiteering publishers." Poland and South Africa have reportedly been considering similar moves.
Larivière was sympathetic to nationalization as part of an eventual solution but also emphasized that academics cannot expect continuous access to a growing number of costly journals, especially those that are rarely used.
Many academic libraries may also be getting gouged due to non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which may prevent libraries from disclosing what they pay publishers or knowing what their competing libraries pay. The Association of Research Libraries has previously urged its members not to sign confidentiality or non-disclosure clauses. Elsevier's David Tempest, when asked by an Imperial College biology about NDAs, said they were necessary to ensure fair competition.
"Such confidential agreements should not exist because universities [are] public organizations. ...The contracts that they sign should be available to anyone," Larivière said.
Beyond open access
Steve Fuller, an American sociologist and philosopher known for his work in science studies, is among those skeptical of open access -- but, in part, for uncommon reasons.
"I see it as addressing a rather limited set of problems surrounding academic knowledge production and specifically underestimating the role that publishers play in the process. ...I think the best way to see the open access movement is as akin to a consumer's revolt. A consumer's revolt doesn't address fundamental problems with capitalism, but it does tackle issues surrounding high prices and value-for-money. ...'[O]pen access' is often associated with 'democratizing' knowledge, but at most it is democratizing it for professional academics who are already the beneficiaries of the publishing system."
Fuller went on to articulate a more expansive definition of 'democratizing' knowledge that would open up academia in further ways.
"Even if the open access journals are freely available online, you still need to be able to make sense of them and submit your papers to its peer review processes. Those are arguably bigger obstacles for non-academics than even the price of journals."
Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John's. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.
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