In recent years there has been a growing clamor for the academy to take back control of scholarly publishing. The academy has been poorly served by the large commercial publishers, this argument goes, whose interests are narrowly economic and fail to address the mission of the research community. Often this argument takes on a distinct anti-capitalist flavor, as though the place to start world revolution is not with the industries with real power (energy, telecommunications, defense) but with the tiny business of publishing, which facilitates the communications of a small group of people with one another. It’s possible, though, to sidestep the question of whether Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and their ilk have performed well or poorly as far as the interests of the academy are concerned and ask a different one: Whatever the merits of Elsevier, ProQuest, EBSCO, et al., what’s stopping academic institutions from taking charge once again?

tug of war

Before we dig into some of the reasons, let’s acknowledge that the “once again” is something of a restoration myth. When, exactly, did the academy “control” publishing? This question will naturally beget the response (bound to show up in the Comments section of this blog) that universities, through their university presses, formerly did much of the work now performed by commercial houses. That is not quite true for a number of reasons. First, commercial firms have always played a role in scholarly communications. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the largest publishers is that over the years they have bought up a great many commercial companies, some of which (e.g., Butterworth’s and Heinemann — Wikipedia: ”William Heinemann founded William Heinemann Ltd in Covent Garden, London, in 1890”) were substantial organizations. (Both Butterworth’s and Heinemann are now part of Elsevier.) Second, scholarly publishing today barely resembles the pre-Maxwell era: it is considerably larger, more sophisticated, and owes its scale and importance to a considerable degree to the relatively recent developments of Sputnik and the Cold War. Finally, the real shift over the past century is not from the academy to the commercial firms but from professional societies to commercial firms. It is the professional societies that are under attack today — from two sides: from the commercial firms that squeeze the societies out of academic library budgets, and from the open access (OA) movement, which denies the professional societies the revenue that formerly sustained them. Thus were the academy to take control of scholarly publishing it would not be so much a restoration as an innovation, but that is hardly a reason not to pursue it.

For the academy to take over, the first item that must be addressed is governance. When a university reviews its own publishing practices, it typically does so by appointing a committee comprised of faculty. In the world of publishing, whether of the traditional kind or any of the various open types, this pits that small committee of academic specialists against professionals. It’s not a good idea to bring a knife to a gun fight. This is not a comment on the talent or commitment of such committees but on the need for domain expertise. Too often the governance of academic publishing units lack real insight into the actual environment in which the publishing entity must battle and survive. It’s also something of a double whammy: not only do faculty-only committees lack publishing domain expertise but any change in governance requires those very committees to vote themselves out of office. This seems to me to be the biggest obstacle for the academy to assert itself in a more robust fashion in publishing.

A corollary to the governance problem is our old friend the Editorial Fallacy.  Faculty tend to think of publishers not in their capacity as readers and rarely as an ongoing enterprise but as the organizations to which they would submit their own work. A publisher, in other words, is viewed purely as an editorial shop. But editorial is only one part of what publishers do, and it is in all the other aspects — production, marketing, cost controls, strategic planning — that commercial firms win out. If editorial quality were all that mattered, university presses would be bigger than Google, Facebook, and Amazon combined. Putting the Editorial Fallacy to rest, even as an organization continues to vie for the very best manuscripts, is a necessary condition for the academy to become a bigger player in scholarly publishing.

Even if the academy could overcome the problems of governance, many attempts to increase the scope of university publishing dwells too much and even exclusively on OA. OA is very much a part of scholarly publishing today — and increasingly dominated by the large commercial firms, as you would expect — but building a successful OA franchise is a tall order. An OA program requires a complete rethinking of scholarly publishing, and it requires substantial buy-in from many entities (e.g., tenure and promotion committees) that have to date been skeptical about any publishing that does not participate in the traditional forms of the reputation economy. Some would say that it is meaningless to talk about the academy taking over scholarly publishing unless it works exclusively in OA formats, but this is simply not true. Is there anyone in the academy who does not respect the outstanding, if small, programs at the university presses of Cornell, Columbia, and Chicago, among many others? These programs are mostly of the traditional kind, where people pay for content that they value. Would anyone object if Tulane had a program that looked like SAGE’s or Michigan’s program were a serious rival to Wolters Kluwer? An exclusive focus on OA undermines any attempt to push back against the industry behemoths.

If editorial quality were all that mattered, university presses would be bigger than Google, Facebook, and Amazon combined.

But even if we were able to solve these problems, who is going to run these organizations? This brings us to the problem of management. This is a source of exasperation to me, as I repeatedly find myself telling academic and professional society clients to “hire high.” While there are significant exceptions to this, few universities are prepared to make the kind of investment in management talent that commercial organizations do as a matter of course. A few years ago I ran across a caricature of this situation, in which a librarian had been put in charge of a scholarly communications program with the goal of providing a meaningful alternative to Elsevier. The salary of this individual? In the range of $70,000. Executives responsible for even small units within large commercial companies earn $300,000 and up. They are not overpaid; they are paid for their performance. As in every other area of professional life, in publishing people make the difference.

The academy has ceded control of publishing to large commercial entities in part by continuing to fund the very organizations that are stifling the academy’s attempts to build their own programs. This is one of the implications of current negotiations over the “read and publish” paradigm, which serves to flip many toll-access articles to OA at the cost of locking in the revenues of the largest publishers. These programs are a simple misreading of the publishing economy. The academy’s problems are not with commerce or capitalism but with the sheer scale of a small number of very successful publishers, who use their scale to dominate the strategic decision-making of libraries and their parent institutions. The way to diminish the influence of domineering organizations is to defund them. Academic institutions could create a five-year plan to reduce expenditures to any single vendor to no more than 5% of the total library materials budget. And that figure should include all expenditures by the institution (e.g., data analytics tools purchased by the university administration), not just scholarly content. Such a defunding move would serve to rearrange the publishing ecosystem even before the five years were up, as acquisitions by the large companies would stop immediately.

Let’s offer only two cheers for the defunding strategy. Such a program would come, literally, at a high cost, as defunding would reduce the economies of scale that the largest players enjoy. A defunding strategy would reduce the influence of the large publishers (and do nasty things to their stock prices), but it would also shrink the size of library collections as the cost per article, in the absence of great scale, would rise.

This is the price that must be paid to take control. And that in turn invites the thought that perhaps the academy has not taken control of scholarly publishing because it doesn’t want to.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


56 Thoughts on "Why Hasn’t the Academy Taken Back Control of Publishing Already?"

An Academy-controlled system would also vastly increase the risk of ‘vanity publishing’, where university presses favoured the work of their own faculty regardless of merit. Part of the value added by the present system is its independence of critical judgement, whether of books, journals or journal articles. If a university press becomes an in-house publisher, it is hard to see how that would be effectively maintained – or believed to be maintained. This would have an inevitable impact on the reputations of those scholars publishing through this route. The big university presses currently work very hard to promote the rigour of their internal review processes but I doubt whether there is scope to do this system-wide.

Vanity publishing is a myth and invoking it is tactic of mirage. Yes, there are vanity publishers, but name *one* vanity publisher situated on a university campus or within an institutional library or a learned society. Name one. This is just the most cliched and hackneyed defense against, for example, library-based publishing. History lesson: the oldest and most revered (prestigious) university presses started as printing *offices* to publish the work of their own faculty (such as at Cornell and Stanford). Same for the learned organizations-societies (such as the one that eventually morphed into Nature and then the Nature Publishing Group) in London were Darwin used to give his lectures, along with others such as Alfred Russel Wallace, who basically bequeathed to us the entire discipline of evolutionary biology. Repeat after me: scholarly publishing started as societies and universities publishing the work of their own members. Scholarly publishing started as societies and universities publishing the work of their own members. Scholarly publishing started as societies and universities publishing the work of their own members. And then thanks to Robert Maxwell, the whole enterprise turned into the extraction of capital from libraries on behalf of mega-corporations owned by venture capitalist. End of story.

Interesting Approach:

1) Can the librarian @70K/year function, with experience, at the same level as the equivalent @300K with equal training/degrees etc.
2) Consider that for some publishers there is not a stronger wall between the publishing and what gets published when subscription value/cost enters into the picture. Is that 300K individual neutral when income from downloads and subscriptions measure performance. There are examples of such stepping across that semi-permeable Chinese Curtain.
2) In relation to 1 and Dingwall’s comments, editors and reviewers are biased with respect to whose articles get published as we see in many disciplines, including STEM, as evidenced by the number of journals that have been created in response to materials that fall outside of “conventional” wisdom
3) Eugene Garfield’s clever creation, “Impact Factor”, as a default measure for promotion and tenure, has done much to increase the volume of articles and hence the proliferation of high priced academic persiflage.

Protecting the innocent, an interesting example in a traditional STEM field is one academic, of high reputation, that publishes the equivalent of “left handed monkey wrenches, XI: color coordination in Schmooland. Or the off-handed remark that another made of the need to get back to writing because the researcher is behind in required articles, publications, this year.

In other words, academia has been hoisted by its own petard. On the other hand, publishers are able to reward themselves and their current or future stock holders by maintaining profits in spite of in-house salaries because of the pub/perish addiction, probably similar to other pernicious addictions.

Before the last World War German could be considered the language of science. In my time in Cambridge University scientists had to do a course on German for Scientists – admittedly rather a long time ago. In Germany for the century from 1850 German scientific publishing was primarily commercial: even polymath Joe Esposito may not know this but it is explained in chapter 3 of a Century of Science Publishing (edited by Einar Fredriksson IOS 2001). Many leading German publishers were Jewish and their diaspora carried ideas about how publishing (commercial) should be done into both the UK and the US often via the Netherlands: this particularly impacted on journal publishing. OK in the US in particular some major learned societies did already have a real position in publishing and remain important but one only has to look at the list of top journals in many fields to see that learned society publishers did not meet the needs of the academic community


This excellent analysis should be carefully read by every funder wasting resources on new initiatives designed to fix a supposedly “broken” publishing system.

As I recall, Derk Haank made the same point when interviewed at the Frankfurt STM meeting a few years ago. He responding to a similar question (more bluntly!) by saying something like: “our business is safe because academics can’t organize a p*ss up in a brewery”.

For the record, I do believe academics CAN organize things, and in some instances with brilliance that is jaw-dropping. I would point to the creation of human resource credentialing for global elites. But that’s a different kind of problem (and far more important) than running a publishing company.

Absolutely – Dr. Burton Rose the co-founder of Up-To-Date is a great example of an academic turned publisher. (However to be successful he had to pursue publishing outside of Harvard because it failed to recognize his brilliance). Gifted exceptions don’t prove the rule.

Most of us “could” do our own plumbing; and maybe in some cases (not mine) we might fancy that we can do it better than a professional plumber. However, the system generally works best if professional plumbers to the plumbing, and the rest of us do our own jobs.

In general, academics are no more publishers than they are plumbers.

Academics, such as myself (punctum books) and Martin Eve (Open Library of Humanities) are running and managing publishing companies (and that’s just the short list!). And guess what? We understand business management, too (I used to work in financial management and accounting before I pursued a PhD and became a professor-scholar, and then a publisher). We can also code. We are extremely adept and aware of all of the most recent technologies relative to publishing and integration of our catalogs with institutional libraries. We have amazing partners like Knowledge Unlatched, ubiquity, OAPEN Library, OASPA, the Ithaka group, DOAB, DOAJ, Editoria/Koko Foundation, and I could go on and on and on and on and on, about all of the persons involved with open-access publishing who have all of the expertise and technical know-how and business management chops that you and others simply don’t believe we have. A university — any university — is teeming with experts in all areas, and they can come together to re-situate our knowledge practices (from knowledge creation to exchange to dissemination, etc.) back within, for example, university libraries, whose ethics are in line with the mission of the public research university, an ethos that is in no way safeguarded in the hands of megalopolis publishers who exist primarily to extract capital from libraries and whose stewards (if such a word can be used here) are in the pockets of venture capitalists.

Point taken, David, but some of those shareholders are VCs and VC corps. with large shares, so it amounts to the same thing in my opinion.

Like I said, some academics become exceptionally successful publishers. However, the majority of academics self-select as being interested in their research field rather than the more mundane business of publishing administration.

Just one problem with your comment, Richard. You are completely missing the fact that the last 20 or so years has witnessed the rise of new academic fields and disciplines, such as the Digital Humanities and also Scholarly Communications, Digital Publishing and Technology (as a hybrid, now also degree-granting, field), such that the Academy is now also producing cadres of younger scholars who have decided they want to work with and also found new digital (and other types of) academic publishing initiatives and platforms. For commercial-conglomerate publishers, this is a sort of #timesup moment. It’s just that the scholarly publishing landscape right now is a bit of a mess and undergoing huge upheavals, so that many of us can’t say for sure what things are going to look like 20 years from now. But I, for one, am not taking my predictions from many of the writers on this blog.

Once again Joe, great article. Additionally, it seems to me that publishing is first and foremost a business. Even university presses are businesses and of those run by a university (i.e. the university has a say in running the operation) many have failed. It seems to me the reason for the failure is because the goal of a university is to transmit knowledge not to run a business. In short, two different skill sets – university management and business management are different animals- and it is the rare individual who can do both.
Lastly, publishing is expensive and is publishing the place where a university wants to put its money? Considering that if a university press is in financial trouble the solution the university provides is to either cut back (make it part of the library after all librarians deal with printed stuff), shut down or sell the press but little desire to invest.

With all due respect, Harvey, a statement like, “publishing is first and foremost a business,” is not necessarily a fact. It may be an opinion, but it is not a fact. Trade publishing is definitely a business, as defined by its very moniker, “trade.” Academic publishing is not the same thing as trade publishing, except now, in the hands of conglomerate-commercial publishers such as SpringerNature, it might as well be “trade” publishing, if by “trade” we mean profits gained through competitive market practices that are decidedly unfair and which do great harm to public research libraries through inflationary pricing protocols that are very much out of whack with what the regular trade market would ever, ever bear. $280 for a Routledge Handbook? If any publisher attempted to sell that to the non-academic public reader in the “regular” market, they would go out of business, so instead, libraries are expected to help support what I believe are, in fact, bloated, inflationary, and unfair pricing protocols that are in no way wired along the expectations of the rest of the business world. So, academic publishing is not “first and foremost a business.” It should actually be a service profession and we should be open to both not-for-profit and for-profit actors to be involved as long as they are all acting in good faith with each other and with researchers and the public institutions that support their research which should lead to open knowledge for all, in order to improve the world and all of humankind (utopian, ideal, but important). I see no reason why some businesses could not help out with this and even make enough money to sustain themselves and to expand, but NOT to generate obscene profits so that shareholders can buy another yacht and contribute more $$ to dark/hidden economies such as those that serve the 1% who control the majority of the world’s economies. I, for one, as a citizen of the public university, have had enough of this, and I wish there were more voices on this blog representing a better diversity of voices on these issues. You need to work harder, SK, please, to diversify the opinions here. You may have women on your masthead, but most of your hard-hitting essays are written by, and mainly commented upon by, white men. You need to change this. I believe there is some good faith on the part of the moderators to try to address that, but you still have a long way to go. Please consider the damage you are doing to librarians who read your blog and who also don’t read it just for their mental health.

To address the diversity comment here — I’m not sure I’d characterize the work of our female authors as any less hard-hitting, but that may be open to interpretation by the reader. However, to imply that an argument is invalid because of the author’s gender or ethnic background (ad hominem) rather than what is being argued, only adds to the bias and problems that we are all working to resolve.

David: just to clarify, my comments were in no way intended to come across as ad hominem (although I can see how they might, granted), as I am speaking not about this or that author in particular, but about a structural and also an optics problem. It is commonplace now in the Academy to be much more conscious about things like “manels” (all-male conference panels) and gender parity and structural racism (such that those of us who are white, like myself, come to recognize better that while we may not be bigots in the conventional Archie Bunker style, we are participating in and also benefit from institutional structures that privilege us at the expense of others who are differently-bodied, differently-sexed, differently-raced, etc. with “raced” here understood as how some “race” others: as a point of fact, there is no such thing as “race” in the sense of “black,” “white,” etc.; it is a cultural construct). Would anyone really argue, for example, that scholarly publishing isn’t dominated by white men (at the commercial-conglomerate and also university press level)? And isn’t that a problem? (One that a recent Mellon grant is trying to address with 4-year positions, I think, at presses that want to have more diversity in their work force, and which positions will hopefully lead to more persons of color in leadership positions within academic publishing). I have happily witnessed the rise in recent years of women taking some major leadership roles in scholarly communications (Amy Brand at MIT comes to mind, as does Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alison Muddit, Cheryl Ball, Sarah Kember, Janneke Adema, Mercedes Bunz, etc., just to name a few), but we are a long, long ways away from gender parity and nowhere near addressing issues of diversity within the industry (if we want to call this an “industry” — I rather like the word for the ways in which it conjures up “people at work” as opposed to “big business”). So, please forgive me for saying something that came across as ad hominem. I mainly want SK to address its own structural racism (we are all of us implicated in and benefit from structural racism, including myself, and this is not the same thing as calling each other racists: we have to be very careful here because many white persons within the University recoil at being asked to address issues of structural racism and usually reply with “I didn’t do/build that” or “I’m not a racist and therefore stop saying I benefit from structural forms of racism” (etc.). We have to do better.

This has been a major focus, both for TSK ( and for the SSP as well ( In the first piece above, some thoughts about why recruiting a more diverse group of authors has been a struggle, but one way we’re working around that is greatly increasing the number of guest posts we offer (already 50% more than we did all of last year), where we’re bringing in a more diverse group of authors unwilling or unable to commit to a full time gig. Also of interest might be our collection of articles on diversity and inclusion:

“Publishing is first and foremost a business” is way out of line, as Eileen says. As an editor who works after office hours on a highly ranked journal, please think again.

Publishing is a business, first and foremost, whether in trade, academic, or mass market publishing. There is very little publishing that is not based in business practices and goals. Government or some NGO publishing may represent examples. Are there others?

Not everyone in a publishing house pursues profit, but everyone working on publications benefits from the margins generated, and is able to pursue editorial, artistic, or market-oriented work because there is a business.

What productive discussion are you seeking to have by arguing this point?

As someone who has insight into the publishing operations of many International Organisations, all I can say is that those run on ‘business-like’ lines succeed and do well in meeting their objectives, those that don’t fail. (To be clear, being business-like has nothing to do with making profits or surpluses, it is running things in a professional manner with a close eye on balancing income with costs and ensuring there is a vision and funds for investment in the future.)

Dear Kent, as to what is the productive discussion I am trying to have, is that “run like a business” and “an actual (for-profit or non-profit) business” are not the same thing, although they are often conflated, especially on university campuses where there is an amazing strain (and stress) between the idea that a public university is not-for-profit “public trust”/public good, which nevertheless *should* have efficient techno-managerial structures in place for the university to operate in good faith as a custodian of the monies it receives (whether through taxes or private donations) — id est, managed “like a business” — and the fact that the university is itself being more and more co-opted by forces of capital that do in fact seek to turn the public university into an actual (perversely, for-profit) “business,” and sadly, often with the compliance of university administrators and even faculty. This is the struggle we are facing in the university today and the current upheavals in the landscape of scholarly publishing are not unrelated to this.

See long comment by me below, but the point is if thousands of OA scholarly-produced journals like mine run without a budget, they are not businesses. Your statement is factually inaccurate. I can show you my accounts – all lines are $0.

Your journal is then inaccurately described as a Gold OA journal, if it charges nothing to publish. Just an FYI.

As for whether it is a business, you are sponsored by and hosted within the University of Arizona Libraries, according to your site, so you are accountable to a business. Do you meet with any oversight group to justify the continuing sponsorship? If so, you are assuming some risk for your authors through this arrangement, so in my book, you are a publisher and a business, even if you find a way to cover the costs through a sponsorship agreement with the University of Arizona Libraries. That arrangement could end, or your journal could fail. I also mean this all as a compliment. I think risk-takers like you and other businesspeople are what make many good things happen.

UofA hosts the OJS site. If they kick us off, which has not happened since 1994, we get another webspace.

Citescore 2.55, upper quartile in several fields and in the top 10% for a couple (eg anthropology, but you can’t select an unlimited number of fields and we are interdisciplinary). WoS not yet, have not been pushing. We don’t particularly support all these rankings, but they have their uses for earlier career authors.
The highest free, voluntary labor OA platinum journal broadly in our research area is Water Alternatives (Citescore 2017: 3.04), WoS 2017:2.6.

A late comment here, so sorry. There is a small fallacy in the original assertion that “publishing is first and foremost a business,” namely in suggesting that a university is somehow first and foremost not a business. But we know that’s not true at all. It is a business–normally a not-for-profit one at that; but then again, so are university presses. So what’s the difference? None really. Both contribute knowledge. One sells books; the other tuitions. Let’s not make any mistake about that very grim but sobering economic reality.

Any number of logical fallacies in the original piece. To name a few:
1) Its kind of arrogant to assume that somebody who has pursued a well-paid career at Elsevier making $300K is inherently more competent than a librarian who has pursued a more scholarly, less-money based career making $70K. And yes with your phrases “hire high” and ” in publishing people make the difference” you did make it clear that was your judgment. Now the non-salary based resources available to that Elsevier exec vs the university librarian might be large and make a material difference which would be more to your point. But academic publishing worked well (better) for a long time without paying extravagant salaries. Extravagantly stretched pay scales with orders of magnitude differences is a relatively recent invention of capitalism. Salary does not measure competence. In fact it is kind of offensive to imply otherwise.
2) You claim economies of scale as a justification for an oligarchical system. No doubt they are real. But it is impossible to look at library budgets and the rapidly growing proportions being spent on journals and claim with a straight face that anybody except shareholders are benefiting from those economies of scale. Its certainly not benefiting academia. As far as academia is concerned a more apropos phrase would be “allowing the extraction of monopolistic rents”.
3) Academics successfully manage huge research institutions (e.g. CERN) not to mention universities. They may not be good at managing for profits, but that is not an inherent requirement of academic publishing.
4) I don’t think any senior academics seriously engaged with publishing (e.g. through governance of societies or as EiCs) have any illusions about the “editorial fallacy”. But given that even the large publishers contract many of those services out and many societies and university publishing houses run those functions still in house, those functions are hardly barriers to entry.

In my opinion the one serious barrier to academics reclaiming control is that the reward incentives by which we academics are evaluated on are heavily based on journal reputation and that is the one thing we cannot create de novo. And that is a story of lock-in and stagnation, not the virtues you are claiming for for-profit corporations. And it is one I believe academics will change over time.

And remember, there is a “third way” for publishing (as there is for any business), that being a cooperative business model. A for profit, commercial enterprise is not the only way to run a business – tens of thousands of business worldwide are run cooperatively with great success. With cooperatives the workers are certainly paid market salaries, but there are no stock holders to be paid so profit is not a major motive.

Crow, R. (2006). Publishing cooperatives: An alternative for non-profit publishers. First Monday, 11(9).

Schroeder, R., & Siegel, G. (2006). A cooperative publishing model for sustainable scholarship. Journal of scholarly publishing, 37(2), 86-98.

International Co-operative Alliance

Cooperatives are great things. To be successful they need market-astute governance, a tightly focused strategy and mission, and outstanding management. Nothing I wrote dismisses the cooperative structure. My point is that that in itself doesn’t not ensure success.

I agree, success is not assured with cooperatives – I’ve been part of some that made it and some that didn’t 😉

But, as the inordinately high cost of journal subscriptions is a major impetus for changing the current academic publishing system, cooperatives may be helpful. The profit motive disappears with cooperatives and cooperative members (the universities and scholars in them) receive high quality goods (peer reviewed articles) at the lowest cost.

This is a red herring, Bob. The profits of the publishers is a small piece of the cost structure. Suppose Elsevier’s margin was 15% instead of 40%. Librarians would still be complaining. The real issue is the sheer amount of material that libraries want to collect, and it is growing.

But librarians didn’t complain when smaller, more service-oriented for profits like Allen Press Chapman & Hall, Blackwell, etc along with societies publishing in house did most of the publishing (say pre 1995). Some of that is profits (40% vs 15% is a real fraction of the total cost). Some of it is the behaviors/lack-of-service that come from being profit-focused and large. I don’t think libraries nor faculty feel well-served by the current publishing ecosystem. Money is only part of that.

I’m afraid you are just wrong about this. Elsevier charges LESS per article than most professional societies. It comes to about $2 per article. I am no apologist for ELS, but let’s be careful with our facts. And of course not all publishers have ELS’s margins; many lose money; so you can’t use the 40% as an average. ELS’s margin is a function of its scale, not price-gouging. The real change since the 1990s is the sheer amount of material being produced. By all means find alternatives, reduce costs, etc., but it’s best to operate with the actual facts before you.

I’m not sure what basis your using for that $2 figure. But as an individual my subscriptions to society journals are cheaper than to Elsevier. For the most part to my knowledge institutional subscriptions are cheaper at society journals as well. Unfortunately pricing is not very transparent so up-to-date data is hard for an individual to come by, but the Bergstrom and Bergstrom 2006 article on journal pricing in ecology tells a very different story than you are (society is about 1/3 the cost of for-profit).

I suspect your Elsevier number is based on bundle prices. But an Elsevier bundle and a single (or handful) of journals from a society are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Its not “cheap” when you never wanted to buy it! Bundling is much of what people are unhappy about. Certainly I don’t think most libraries perceive Elsevier as cheaper than society journals. Just for example, I haven’t heard of the German academic libraries going after society journals.

The only profit margins that matter are Elsevier, Springer & Wiley.

And the “real change” since the 1990s is massive consolidation to the point where I can make the previous statement.

I was referring to bundled prices. That is how most journals are purchased by libraries. The cost per article comes to about $2. The average amount received by all publishers for articles is about $5,000. That figure is driven by the number of customers and includes such things as preprints and advertising. Generally speaking, the largest publishers (at least in STM) make significantly less per article than the smaller society publishers. This is all explained in the work of Ronald Coase. Scale matters. BTW, NOTHING in my post was said in support of ELS or anyone else. In fact, I recommended that libraries consider defunding them.

I think it’s fair for Joe to highlight here, several times, that he is not praising companies like Elsevier in his post. Fair enough, Joe. But you’re dead wrong about what academic scholars and librarians are capable of. Just.Dead.Wrong.

I would also just like to add here that publishing cooperatives, structured along horizontalist organization principles that would knit together librarians, scholars-led publishers / platforms, knowledge base providers and other service providers (of various sorts, both for- and non-profit), would in fact work. punctum books is working on one such model of that right now, about which we can say more in a few months.

I think it is important to know your audience here. There is some sound advice in this post for the academic publishing community, but it is overshadowed by statements that lack awareness. Particularly, I want to address the statements about “hiring up” and paying for expertise, and the idea that a librarian paid $70K will never be able to run a program as well as someone in commercial publishing paid $300K. While I think the sentiment behind this statement is that academic publishing programs need more resources in order to “take back control,” I bristled when I read that paragraph and had to take a break before I finished the post. The Workplace Equality Project *just* shared the results of their survey at SSP last month, in which everyone saw (and no one was surprised) that in the scholarly publishing profession, more men reported salaries above $100K than women. So as a female librarian, I read your statement as: a man can do my job better than I can. Rationally, I understand everything you are trying to say, and I even agree with some of it. However, if this is a post asking the academy why they haven’t taken control of publishing, you should try to actually understand your audience so your good ideas aren’t lost amidst blunt statements that lack nuance.

Your interpretation is entirely in your own imagination. There are many, many women in publishing who earn into the high six figures. They earn that money because they are outstanding at their jobs. Kudos to them.

To be fair, we’ve now seen two responses taking your point in a different manner than it was intended. To me, the point was that people who are really good at leading a publishing program can earn a lot of money, and that the commercial publishers in particular are willing to pay at that level, so that if one wants to compete with them for that same talent, one has to invest at that level. It wasn’t a statement that a librarian earning less was less talented — more likely if that person proved to be really talented, they’d get a lot of job offers that would likely include a massive increase in salary (and would be hard to retain by their academic employer).

I think the comment about salaries in particular, but the whole post in general misses out that career decisions and worth are not a one-dimensional axis based on money. I left a very high paying job in the computer industry to earn literally 1/10 the salary as a graduate student that I had been making. 20 years down the road and as a full professor I still only earn half of what I made when I left the field (and who knows probably 1/5 what I would be making if I stayed). Presumably I am no less talented. And yet I (and many others like me) fit nowhere in your analysis.

There are all kinds of reasons I made that choice. A big one is I find the values of my employer align with my own values better. But also academia brings a great many strengths and benefits not found in the corporate world. The ability to work with a truly long-term (decades) perspective, the diverse pool of expertise assembled, the encouragement to think deeply rather than be reactive, the ability to influence the minds of the future, and etc etc. Not to mention if you want to talk about money, public universities have the annual subscription model of revenue (a yearly bolus from the taxpayers and students) that businesses only dream of (not to deny the negative trends in this area, but the funding of a university 10 years from now is far more clear than the funding of an academic for-profit publisher 10 years from now).

Don’t get me wrong, academics and the academy have their own shortcomings too. I mentioned the most serious one relevant to this discussion – substituting journal reputation as a measure of professional achievement. And I spent 10 years working in industry. I’m not objecting to anybody who chooses that path.

But I just feel like this post was a bit simplistic in its portrayal of business as a powerful engine and the academy and its workers as feckless. Academics cannot get out of their bubble to govern. Academics cannot manage. Academics don’t understand that there is typesetting and copy editing involved. Universities don’t have the human capital to take on business because they have a different pay scale/rewards structure was just the most poorly thought out of these and also the most offensive.

Thank you for posing an interesting and important question. And personally, I would love to see the opposite post – why the megaconglomerates are too inflexible to adapt and change with the times. That would also be an oversimplification, but there is an equally strong case to make for it. I see a complete lack of vision and a complete decoupling from/concern about their customers being filled with a mostly short-term focus on maximizing revenue. That is not a viable longterm business model.

“Your interpretation is entirely in your own imagination. There are many, many women in publishing who earn into the high six figures. They earn that money because they are outstanding at their jobs. Kudos to them.” Joe, with all due respect, your first sentence above is completely rude, and also patronizing. Second, you can point to women in every field and business who make triple digit salaries. You are not engaging with the substance (and there is substance there!) of Kathryn M.’s remarks and since you already know your post upset her, why be so dismissive of her comments? Did we not just recently receive the results of an in-house survey at a very large publishing firm (Elsevier, I believe, and I believe SK also ran a piece on this, right?) that conclusively demonstrates there is still a severe pay gap between women and men in the publishing industry? You have to look at all of the positions across the spectrum of a company and also across companies. There is a severe pay gap between men and women, which still by and large favors men. It’s called structural sexism and it’s a major problem in scholarly publishing. From the Lancet:

“Academic publishing—which supports and profits from the health and research communities—has likewise fared poorly [relative to gendered pay gaps]. Among scholarly publishers, Elsevier, the publisher of The Lancet, stands out, with a median pay gap of 40% in favour of men over women in its UK business. This compares to a median gap of 22% at Wiley, 15% at Springer Nature, 15% at SAGE, and 13% at Oxford University Press. Elsevier commented that it “is committed to equal pay and has policies in place to pay employees fairly for the role they do, irrespective of their gender.” Ron Mobed, Elsevier’s Chief Executive Officer, gave The Lancet this response: “Elsevier’s UK gender pay gap numbers are higher than we want and my management team and I are committed to taking actions to address the issue. While we have quite a few women in senior roles in the UK, and these have been increasing, the data indicate a need for more progression of women into senior roles.” The Lancet strives to champion science that combats inequity and promotes the ability of women everywhere to live healthy and fulfilling lives. That our publisher has reported such a large gender pay gap, and especially when compared with other publishers, is unacceptable.”

It’s probably worth noting this is already done in some fields (well, at least, astronomy). In astronomy, all of the journals are owned by the community in one fashion or another (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society is owned by … the Royal Astronomical Society, The Astrophysical Journal and The Astronomical Society are owned by the American Astronomical Society, and Astronomy & Astrophysics is owned by the European Southern Observatory). So if you want to see what the academy controlling publishing is, one can find examples.

Perhaps worth noting that none of those journals are self-published, all rely upon a publishing partner. Though to be fair, in this case they’re all using academically-owned publishing houses, but there are many society-owned journals that partner with commercial presses.

Brian, there are hundreds, probably thousands of society-owned journals. These are not publications owned by the academy, here defined as universities. Most of my professional work is with professional societies. You really are accusing me of saying the OPPOSITE of what I am saying. This is truly exasperating.

Well, that might’ve been avoided if you didn’t say “The Academy” when you didn’t mean “The Academy”. There’s nothing in the article to give the reader any indication you’ve taken such a bizarre definition of “The Academy”.

Your entire post is about how ownership of publishing by commercial publishers shapes publishing and how it could be different if the Academy owned publishing, which society owned publications are examples of. If there’s some advantage to university owned publishing that doesn’t apply to society owned publishing, you didn’t articulate it (nor can I imagine any).

This is a very interesting observation: “A defunding strategy would reduce the influence of the large publishers (and do nasty things to their stock prices), but it would also shrink the size of library collections as the cost per article, in the absence of great scale, would rise.”

In an OA world, which is growing as the commercial publishers increasingly focus on it – especially as piracy (and scholars just sharing because, as the STM principles point out, scholars just tend to do that) means it is hard to keep subscription dollars flowing – library collections are either shrinking anyway (if OA copy is not something libraries truly collect/manage) or growing (if libraries count OA copy because they manage access to it via link resolvers from databases, etc.). I’m not sure collection size is really all as much the focus any more … at least when it comes to journals/articles. Monographs, maybe. But, not periodicals.

One thing which is bothering me is that some of this discourse appears to rely on the notion that *ALL* academic publishers are the equivalents of Elsevier and their ilk – and this just isn’t true. Many of us in the profession work for pretty small salaries (six figures?! never) and for companies which don’t turn in a huge profit (if a profit at all) and are self-owned (full disclosure – I work for Boydell and Brewer Ltd, which is such). Equally, I greatly respect the skill-set and professionals of librarians – but I couldn’t be one without further training; and the same surely applies in return? It’s a question of different expertises.

The post is so wrong on several levels about academia and its attitudes to publishing:
“what’s stopping academic institutions from taking charge once again?” I agree ‘once again’ is not right. What is stopping us innovating is the astute big corporate, post-Maxwell publishers – those who buy up smaller publishers, and make themselves plenty of profits. They have retained material and symbolic control of how we define ‘excellent’ publishing outlets and so through their economic power they have a grip on academic careers through rankings, and their vision of prestige (publishing in their highly ranked expensive journals that they control) . This may just be capitalism, but it is nonetheless unfair and unjust. So, it needs challenging. In addition, scholarly performance criteria are also to blame in neoliberal academic systems, that do not reward editing, refereeing, and publishing work by academics. Only producing and authoring stellar work, preferably with large grants producing overheads. Performance metrics have crept in, but resistance is strong. “as Brian says in comments, “…substituting journal reputation as a measure of professional achievement” is a major screwup going back decades if not centuries. By contrast as a senior scholar I always praise writing in ‘socially just’ outlets, and doing journal and publishing work – among my own research group of academics, who I evaluate yearly. More profs could do the same.
“… place to start world revolution is not with the industries with real power (energy, telecommunications, defense) but with the tiny business of publishing”. No we aren’t, and working on both, thanks – political ecologists, in my home interdiscipline, are working widely on the former in the working week, for example on US military purchasing, energy system reform, gross inequalities in access to resources, water shortage, disaster mitigation etc. We have to get involved with publishing powers too though, because the big companies are pretty massive and so unfavorable to equality in our profession.
” the Editorial Fallacy” – does not exist my field. At the POLLEN political ecology meetings in Oslo in June ’18 (450 people), typical of progressive social science, we led a well attended publications session where different journal editors presented their philosophies and their journal’s work. I will write a blog posting about this and make a link to it below, if comments are still open if I get to it. At the radicalopenaccessII meeting in Coventry last month, there was a true publishing and academic community representing many of the publishers discussed by Eileen here in the comments. I saw academics and editors actually conversing, and the Centre for Postdigital Cultures hosting us actually teaches publishing and new media forms. The books presented at the event are here [ and they were produced as a community endeavor. All are available as free downloads and none of the presses are ‘commercial’, only nonprofit. Open Hums. Press, of course has some funding from libraries, some from authors, but the contributors are contributing way less cash than they do to the big-deal ‘big four’ for a suite of books and journals. This is one future for academics ‘taking back publishing’. And it is here already, at least in the humanities.
“… but building a successful OA franchise is a tall order. An OA program requires a complete rethinking of scholarly publishing, and it requires substantial buy-in from many entities (e.g., tenure and promotion committees) that have to date been skeptical about any publishing that does not participate in the traditional forms of the reputation economy” . I am not sceptical about OA, and I serve on numerous tenure and promotion committees! Also the outfit has many more people, like Sir Tim Gowers of Cambridge, who are also not skeptical and getting to work. Neither will my grad students be skeptical when they are in my position, neither are the entire academic communities in Latin America where almost all Spanish and Portuguese journals and books are OA and university-run [72% of indexed articles in this undated article, could be higher. The main point is that we are not trying to build a “successful OA franchise” in financial terms, but in ethically just terms, and in terms of better accessibility . So it is a much cheaper enterprise. We can leave the ‘whether we can cope with the volume’ argument for another day – not at the moment, but publishing is changing fast.
A salary of “$70,000” for a regular publishing job would be gratefully received by an adjunct or an assistant or even an associate professor at many academic institutions I am familiar with. At my research university, in the world top 150 and with some world leading departments like sociology, a full professor usually earns only c$10,000 more (£63k/$82k). Academics earning ‘$300,000 and up’ are very rare outside the business and law schools and in the superstar fraternity, surely If publishers are earning that much, maybe they are doing so at our expense, down in the scholarly trenches? Are we really supplying them with texts so that a few capitalists can earn such salaries (and much more in the upper echelons of big publishing companies)? “The academy has ceded control of publishing to large commercial entities in part by continuing to fund the very organizations that are stifling the academy’s attempts to build their own programs.” – yes but not people like me, and increasingly less so – see the repeated fightbacks against Elsevier in Europe – hopefully coming to North America soon. And this was the whole point of the radicalopenaccessII meeting – developing viable alternatives without highly paid publishing execs. involved.
“The way to diminish the influence of domineering organizations is to defund them”. Agreed. Since they have quietly been taking over the work produced in the progressive disciplines, in social science, we can start with those – with senior scholars evaluating ‘socially just’ publishing by junior scholars favorably, doing our own publishing as many universities and professional societies worldwide already do [see my list, mentioned many times now ), paying good publishers to assist us in our non-profit alternatives (at our lowly $ rates I guess?) and challenging the for-profit publishers when they put their profits and shareholders above the interests of readers and authors. In sum, pissed off academic authors = no high-yielding scholarly publishing business of course, so we actually hold the power.

If if this was a journal submission, I would ask for a ‘revise and resubmit’, please, citing the work that is already underway in this space. It shows how far apart people like Eileen and I are from those who think academics are not doing enough to change the publishing aspect of our work.

It may be of some interest to know that a contributor to this discussion, Eileen Joy, an author and publisher, feels and acts in the following manner when it comes to the work of other authors and publishers (she is discussing n Twitter a book she was not involved in but feels is overpriced):

“Couldn’t agree more which is why I posted a PDF of that book with every pirate library I know (such as aaaaarg). If you go to you can also get the whole book from my profile.”

Twitter, 2:46 PM – 18 Jul 2018

It’s actually her book not someone else’s. Read again. And the twitter discussion is about the awful publishing decisions junior faculty in the US and North American system are forced into making to secure their jobs. Nobody wants to put out a book price in the hundreds of Dollars

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