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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.

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.

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.

The paywall

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 Libraries alone 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.

The 123 ARL institutions are among the best, most well-funded institutions in North America. Things may be far worse for other institutions and their libraries. And the situation may be most extreme for institutions and researchers in developing countries, who can afford few if any paywall subscriptions to journals – at a time when an increasing amount of research is conducted collaboratively across borders and is relevant to their countries.

Academia’s original impetus for publishing through the private sector was to ensure a sufficient economic base to perform the copy editing and publication. Now, some of the larger publishers report billions of dollars of profit annually, exceeding 30 percent of revenue – never the intent.

For their part, the journals say they’re providing valuable services that have real costs – things such as expertly curating, editing and proofreading the content. But critics claim publishers are more interested in profit than disseminating scholarship. It doesn’t seem they’re passing on any cost savings that have presumably resulted from tech advances – things such as accepting electronic copies of papers that make it easier to produce final versions, or doing away with printing expensive hard copies and exclusively publishing online.

This upside-down publishing picture has persisted since the 1980s. Due to institutions’ reliance upon library materials, the inability to keep up with such extreme cost increases is damaging to higher education instruction and research. Without consistent access to the cutting-edge knowledge that’s embodied in the universe of journal publications, faculty, students and researchers can’t keep up with new research.

Short-circuiting the system

Maybe it’s not a surprise that individuals find ways to circumvent the publishers’ paywalls to access content, despite the scrupulous adherence to copyright law espoused by libraries and librarians.

Access via ResearchGate – a networking site where researchers can share papers – doesn’t provide journal articles’ full text. And it’s dealing with the threat of lawsuits from publishers who say the site violates their copyrights.

Sci-Hub provides access to tens of millions of papers, letting people sneak around paywalls. Again, the publishers claim copyright violation. The site, hosted in Russia, has faced injunctions and lawsuits, and even been ordered by a New York court to pay publisher Elsevier $15 million in damages.

But efforts like these to bypass paywalls are only symptoms of the problem. Unsustainability embedded in the current economic model for journal publications is the source. If we are to maintain healthy education and research environments, changes are incipient and imperative.

The ConversationPossible solutions include taking collective action with publishers to obtain lower pricing immediately, with reasonable annual inflation, and better bundling of titles so libraries get the ones we want rather than the ones publishers add. Open access journals that don’t employ paywalls could help. Another partial solution could be capturing many more preprint versions of journal articles in a formal, citable fashion that can be referenced well. The state of academic publishing is in such crisis that a variety of strategies may need to be adopted.


Patrick Burns is Dean of Libraries and Vice President for Information Technology at Colorado State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  1. As long as success in academia is measured by number of publications, this will not change.

    How many tenured professors do not have any publications behind a paywall at your school? What are the chances that a professor could get tenure with all their publications at an open source site?

    If your university is not a highly unusual outlier, the answer to both questions is zero.

    Until the status game, a game maintained by the universities, is not changed, it is unlikely that the publication paywall issue will go away.

    It is in the content creators self interest to submit their work to the journals. It is in the journals’ self interest to collect the work and then charge for access. The universities and other sources of income for academics use success of publication as a key metric in a manner that suggests they believe this approach to be in their best interest also.

    The journals are primarily selling a brand; research is a secondary good. The content creators are exchanging their content for branding. Prospective employers are purchasing the expectation of quality control. The business model is closer to credit bureau than a library.

    The energy to sustain this system comes from the university administrations. The moment this energy is removed the system will wind down. It is true that other sources of grant money/employment look at publications, but the primary driver is the universities.

    One’s administrative cost exists due to the administrative decisions of the same. There are entities that deserve commiseration, but the originator and perpetrator are not.

    • I think NPW pretty much captured the problem. Publication in “top-tier” journals is mandatory for tenure, as a result those journals have an asset (their brand) they can charge for. While there are a large # of journals making the impression of an open marketplace, you really have monopolistic pressures at play. There is the invisible barrier to entry into the ‘top tier’ of journals. The notion that a new, online-only journal could spawn up using the exact same peer reviewers and editing staff with content creators paying a fee for publication (once accepted) is flawed simply because it ignores the FACT that publication in those journals would be meaningless to the tenure committees. Even some private sector firms with R&D divisions use this “tenure track” analog to judge promotions and bonuses.

      Even if there is recognition of this, does anyone really think you’d have a shot in hell of getting all the academic institutions to shift their thinking and force the publisher’s hand? You have a better shot of getting a tax overhaul through Congress with a unanimous vote.

      • Andrija Stupar says

        NPW and Bill have hit it on the head, but perhaps have missed a circumvention of the current system: if it’s the universities who want publications in top-tier journals in order to grant tenure, then it’s the universities who in effect determine what top-tier journals are: anything they say they are. So why don’t the universities come together and create their own, much lower cost and also open access journals?

        If the top 50 universities in the US for example came together and created their own publishing house, managed at arms’ length from them, whose goal financially would be essentially just to break even, and then endorse the journals produced by this publishing house as being of the same rank as Nature and whatever for the purpose of determining tenure etc., wouldn’t this solve the problem of the greedy publishers? In fact, just seriously announcing such an intention would probably be enough to change the publishers’ tune.

    • Aceil says

      Universities are under pressure to improve their rankings. A pressure created by university rankings that give more than 50% weight to the number of publications and citations. The tools used to calculate rankings are too simple to ponder.

  2. To Patrick,

    Just spitballing an idea for an alternative solution at the local level:

    If Colorado State joined with Univ of Colorado and the various public/private schools “locally” (ex. Colorado) and created a single, University System of Colorado Library that merged funding from each school into 1 larger system, with “branch library offices” on each campus, would that be an avenue to crowdsource the cost for greater journal access? I’m ignorant of how this area is organized but I would imagine duplication by-university/college.

  3. I don’t mean to be glib, but isn’t the main problem with academic journals their status as write only documents? Nobody ever reads them to learn anything. They are written to please and advanced the interest of the author and the author’s club.

    As this article suggests, the only discernable value of a journal paper is as a reference for somebody else’s paper. Outside of academia, the term to describe this sort of thing is circle jerk.

    • user meme says

      @Kurt. Clearly, you do not do any serious research that involves chemistry and/or material science. I search through thousands of articles per month and read much, if not all, of anywhere from about 20 to 100 selected from those thousands. I do this so that I can determine if my idea has already been explored so that I can either have a starting point without a total reinvention of the wheel, or to find if there exists prior art to consider in patent related contexts.

      So no, the only discernable value of a journal paper is most definitely not as a reference for somebody else’s paper.

  4. augustine says

    A good article that addresses some important issues. I suggest that one improvement (for end users) would be to tier the pricing of article access by age. It is not unreasonable to charge access for the latest and greatest research findings, say within a 2-5 year period. But I have seen comparable pricing for works that are many decades old. Those journals have been already paid for as hard copy distributions, so “milking it” seems like an understatement.

    Before I went to college I remember bus rides at night to the local university to cruise the stacks and make all the copies I wanted of any journal, 10c per page as I recall. It was wonderful to have access to that world at an early age. The factor that makes this information susceptible to corporate excess is that it is online. I find it more than a little ironic that with faster and more extensive access to research papers we now have often punitive monetary barriers for all. As someone else commented here, the scene resembles a credit agency more than a library in its function and ethos. Does this more restrictive approach better serve society overall?

    I would be curious as to what Mr. Burns thinks of the JStor model.

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  6. This article is a good overview, but I have been seeing (and writing) articles like this for at least 10 years. The discussion is also correct – nothing will change.

    Journals are not read-only. I (and my non-profit have been developing tools to read the scientific literature in high-throughput mode and extract facts. We frequently find researchers (e.g. in medical systematic reviews) who download 50,000 articles and find that perhaps 50-100 contain the detailed facts they want. This is modern C21st knowledge-driven science and researchers are actively impeded by the publishers (who shut off subscriptions for a few days) if “too much” science is read. The Orwellian role of a modern publisher is to restrict access to knowledge and dole it out for money.

    A necessary but not sufficient condition is that Libraries have a united and determined action community. The simplest action is to stand up to the publishers when they cut universities off and demand refunds. It’s a simple breach of law – you are not getting the goods you paid for. But many universities instead “solve” this by asking the researcher to limit their research so as not to upset the publisher.

    Scholarly publishing is about USD 20 billion / year. If libraries could sequester 2.5% of that – 500 Million – to build new and better resources that’s a way to change the system. We should have products that are better than what publishers sell.

    But of course publishers are really selling glory. And universities will pay any price.

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  8. David Turnbull says

    Cost is certainly one barrier to useful access, but I would argue that an even bigger barrier is the publication of filler. In STEM fields, from which I have retired, I would place the percentage of unnecessary publications at perhaps 80%. My impression is that in non-STEM fields that percentage is even higher. Again, this is driven by the publish-or-perish mentality. As a frequent reviewer before I retired, I became increasingly discouraged by the content I was asked to judge. Under journal rules (and I’m talking top-tier journals) it was only possible to reject the most blatantly trivial submissions.

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