Who profits from academic publishing?

Apologies for following up the last post so quickly particularly as the theme is a little away from the biomechanics of walking but Jon’s comment to my last entry has prompted some web surfing that leaves me feeling really angry. I remain suspicious of producer pays publishing but realise that the open/closed debate is all a bit of a diversion when you look at the role of the commercial publishers in all this.

I now know that academic publishing is dominated by three companies Elsevier, Springer and John Wiley who between them handle 42% of all papers published. Elsevier publish Gait and Posture and the Journal of Biomechanics which are two of the most influential journals in gait biomechanics so I’ll focus the rest of this post on them but I suspect the others are not much better. Elsevier is part of Reed Elsevier. The academic publishing arm (which includes journals and text books is listed as “scientific, technical and medical” within the company accounts and reports) publishes a third of a million research articles each year in 2,00o journals with 700 million downloads last year.

All well and good but if you look at their financial statement you’ll see that over the last two years (2011 and 2012) they had an annual turnover of just over £2 billion (yes billion) and an operating profit of around £700 million. That’s a profit of about 35% of turnover (click here for similar figures for other publishers).

This is a business that publishes other peoples products. They don’t pay the authors anything for the content they publish (indeed the gold open access deal is that authors will pay them about £3,000 per article) and they don’t pay reviewers anything for peer review. I’m not sure what the Editor of Gait and Posture get’s paid but I’m an Associate Editor and receive about  £1,500 per year (half the open access fee for just one article – and will probably handle about 100 papers this year). The £700 million that Elsevier’s shareholder receive each year is thus essentially a product of the academic community’s good will. 

Like any responsible multinational Elsevier are engaged in political lobbying to protect their profits. They have been strong supporters of three bills (Stop on line piracy [SOPA], Protect intellectual property  [PIPA] and the Research Works Acts) presented to the US government. Whilst all have positive sounding names and objectives they are essentially bills that protect the vested interests of holders of copyright. In Elsevier’s case this is particularly outrageous as the copyright they hold stems from other people’s intellectual endeavour.

I’m not the only one to feel unsettled by this. George Monobiot is a campaigning journalist who put’s the case against the publishing cartel very strongly.  In January 2012 mathematician Sir Tim Gowers called for a boycott of Elsevier  which has given rise to the Cost of Knowledge movement that now  lists over 14,000 academics who have chosen to boycott Elsevier’s activities in one way or another. 

I find this really challenging. I probably regard Gait and Posture and Journal of Biomechanics as the two premier journals in my field but  I feel really angry about the size of the profits that someone is generating from my labour. Any suggestions?



  1. Hi, Richard. You’re in a tough position, and I don’t envy you. In my own field of dinosaur palaeontology, the top biomechanics person is probably John Hutchinson. Although he’s been an associate editor for Elsevier in the past, he’s recently started handling manuscripts for the very low-cost open-access publisher PeerJ — to good effect, as he recently handled a paper of mine which I was very happy with: see https://peerj.com/articles/36/

    From the perspective that I want to see the whole world’s academic literature become open access, I’d love it if you were to make a similar move: PeerJ and PLOS ONE are always looking for more editors.

    An alternative is of course to start your own journal, and run it independently of any publisher, an option that is much more feasible now than it was ten years ago. See for example Stuart Shieber’s account of how the very highly regarded Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) runs at no cost to authors or readers: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/2012/03/06/an-efficient-journal/ Such a journal could be started with a good reputation from the outset if you were able to persuade a sizeable chunk of the Gait And Posture editorial board to come across with you.

    I realise these are big decisions to make, and don’t expect anyone to take them lightly. But the potential gains for your field are enormous.

  2. I’ve often thought that being a publisher is quite the racket. You (not you personally), the publisher, get a bunch of other folks to do the hard stuff (write and review the articles), and beyond that your costs only really scale with volume of subscriptions.

    G&P and J. Biomech have other problems, most especially the word, figure and table limitations. While the intent is to have people get to the point faster, such limitations mean that these journals really aren’t appropriate for the publication of truly new ideas which may require more extended explanations of theory or methods. Perhaps the other purpose of the limitations is to allow for more authors to be published. However, if the articles are so terse as to condense the methods sections to the bare essence of procedure – it may be hard for other authors to replicate results. Nature has recently allowed authors to write virtually unlimited methods sections to ensure that experiments are reproducible.

    In my other field, physics, the journal Physical Review Letters has addressed the volume problem by splitting into several areas (Condensed Matter or Nuclear physics among others) and is published 52 times per year. Another venue which is often used by physics folks is arxiv.org. This site publishes preprints of many articles in physics and astronomy journals (it’s also used by mathematicians, computer scientists, and biologists). Interestingly, articles published there are put there PRIOR TO submission to named journals. And somehow in those fields, THAT’s OK. They have a moderator system to flag inappropriate articles. Arxiv is used by my physics colleagues to publicly post research and get feedback on it (and credit for their work) prior to peer review at a journal.

    I have often wondered why we don’t approach the Arxiv.org folks to set up a biomechanics category.

    Anyhow, love the blog, Richard. Keep up the interesting posts.

    1. For what it’s worth, I, a palaeontologist with a tangential interest in biomechanics, have posted a paper in my field on arXiv without problems: see http://arxiv.org/abs/1209.5439

      That snuck in under the rather vague heading “quantitative biology”. I figure if that was accepted, any legitimate biomechanics paper would be. So I would definitely encourage anyone in that field to deposit preprints, either at arXiv or at the newer Peerj Preprints site — which I have also used to great effect: see http://svpow.com/2013/09/24/reviews-for-our-barosaurus-preprint/

      (Sorry to keep linking to my own work; it provides the best examples I can come up, partly because I’ve unusually active in OA venues and also of course partly just because I know my own work so well.)

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