Academic journal publishing is headed for a day of reckoning

Imagine a researcher working under deadline on a funding proposal for a new project. This is the day she’s dedicated to literature review – pulling examples from existing research in published journals to provide evidence for her great idea. Creating an up-to-date picture of where things stand in this narrow corner of her field involves 30 references, but she has access to only 27 of those via her library’s journal subscriptions. Now what?

There isn’t time to contact the three primary authors to get copies directly from them. Interlibrary loan will take too long. She could try other sites that host academic papers – such as ResearchGate and Sci-Hub – but access to particular articles isn’t assured and publishers are cracking down on what they call copyright violations.

This fictitious example illustrates the quandary in which many researchers find themselves today. Access to journals is crucial for how they do their work. But few research libraries can afford all the journal subscriptions needed by all of their faculty for all occasions. As the dean of libraries at a state school, I contend that the economic model for academic journal publications is broken. As scholars are handicapped by limited access to the corpus of research in their fields, scientific progress is restricted and slows, and society ultimately loses.

A literature review depends on access to online or hard copies of published research articles. The Wolf Law LibraryCC BY-NC-ND

Path to publication

Before there’s anything to be published in a journal, a researcher must conduct the study or experiment. The first step is the proposal to secure necessary funding. As in our vignette above, this requires establishing the state of the art from a literature review of professional publications in the discipline – accessed mostly through subscription contracts entered into by their institution’s library.

Volunteer committees of researchers assembled by federal funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health, review these proposals. Grants are awarded to the ones considered most promising. Then the funded researchers get down to work.

After conducting the research, sometimes over multiple years, the next step for a scholar is to prepare and submit a manuscript to a journal. This publication of new findings becomes the “coin of the realm” in academia. Publishing in top-tier journals provides broad exposure for the ideas, and paves the way to tenure and promotion.

Journal editors, many of whom are themselves researchers and uncompensated for these duties, manage the review and acceptance process. Editors distribute manuscripts to anonymous reviewers who are experts, typically researchers in the field, who assess whether the work is solid and advances the state of knowledge. The reviewers can recommend the journal accept the manuscript as is (almost never happens), accept with mandatory or suggested revisions, or reject for publication.

Example of an article hidden behind an online paywall, accessible only to subscribers. Duncan HullCC BY

Now it’s up to the original researcher to make changes and submit the final article for publication. Often authors must remunerate the publisher for processing charges, typically in the range of US$2,000 to $5,000 per article. For this fee, the journals provide copy editing and other publishing functions, and produce galley proofs for the authors to review and vet.

Finally, the article is published, where it’s most likely hidden behind a “paywall” on a site that can be accessed only by paying subscribers, typically academic institutions’ libraries.

Note that most of the heavy lifting is accomplished by the researchers themselves.

Ballooning costs make it impossible to keep up

So, in our institutions of higher education and our research labs, scholars first produce, then buy back, their own content.

For this privilege, thousands of institutions pay billions of dollars per year to publishers. Members of the Association of Research Librariesalone report spending about $1 billion per year purchasing subscriptions to journals.

According to an internal Association of Research Libraries survey conducted in 2016, the vast majority of their member libraries can’t keep up with these costs. For the most part, their budgets aren’t keeping up with publisher cost increases, so they need to make hard decisions about which journal subscriptions to let lapse, which new and emerging areas to ignore, and where they can cut their nonjournal collections to find additional dollars for journal cost increases.

And the price tags are rising, with journal inflation costs outpacing the consumer price index by a factor of four to five.


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