Eleni Courea is a political journalist reporting from the parliamentary lobby for the Observer, New Statesman and Times. From 2016 to 2018, she worked as a reporter for Research Fortnight and Research Europe, covering UK and EU research policy with a focus on academic publishing and open access.
Publishing is a funny old world. Newspapers, which are read daily by hundreds of thousands of people in print and online, are in perpetual financial decline. Meanwhile scientific journals, whose readership is far more eclectic, are posting healthy profit margins—Elsevier’s 36% margin in 2017 surpassed that of Google, Apple and Amazon, and yet few people outside the scientific community have heard of it.
To understand why this is we have to go back to the mid- and late-90s. At the cusp of the digital era, Britain’s newspapers made the radical decision to launch websites where they made their content fully available for free. This amounted to putting the mission to stay relevant in the new age above an obvious danger to their financial sustainability. If newspaper editors predicted that print media and its advertising revenues were going to be eclipsed by digital, then they might have foreseen that people would stop buying papers after they discovered they could just read them online for free.
It is no wonder then that, in the two decades that followed we have seen most quality publications row back on that open-access revolution. Several, including Financial Times and Times, have put all their content behind paywalls, while others, such as the Telegraph and the Economist, allow readers to view a limited number of articles per month for free. The Guardian, which has kept its free-to-read model, is financed by a voluntary subscription service, soliciting one-off or regular contributions from its readers.
The result of this has been to foster a public sense that news cannot be produced for free. Just as with music and film—where illegal downloads have fallen out of fashion in favour of Spotify and Netflix subscriptions—quality journalism is turning into something that must be paid for. The result may be the emergence of a Netflix-style news service that allows subscribers to read articles from a whole range of newspapers and magazines.
The story of academic publishing in these past few decades has a different one. In the 90s, scientific journals were equally eager to get a head start on digitisation, while being more mindful of profit. The biggest journals quickly set up web versions, but rather than make all their content freely available online, they saw an opportunity to save money on print production, charge individuals to access articles, and charge users for additional services like text and data mining.
By thus being more commercially-minded than newspapers, scientific publishers have so far guaranteed their sustainability and continued to post considerable profit margins. But the scientific community has begun questioning whether these earnings are deserved. Journals publish content that is given to them by researchers for free, and then rely on the free labour of peer reviewers to turn it over. They then sell this back to universities and libraries, which purchase subscriptions with government money—even though taxpayers paid for the research to occur—to provide researchers with access to it, even though they produced it in the first place. It is as if a newspaper expected journalists and editors to churn out stories on a voluntary basis and for the taxpayer to cover the costs, and then demanded that the government pay for people’s access to it.
At the heart of this divergence is the fact that the news industry is a highly competitive one, where papers jostle for circulation and prestige. But since open access has shot up the UK and EU’s national agendas, a landscape is emerging where publishers must open up if they are to keep getting support from the government and charities that fund research. This is most recently evidenced by the Plan S initiative, spearheaded by the European Commission, which seeks to ensure the immediate open-access publication of research it supports from 2020. It has been joined by over 20 national funders in European, including UK Research and Innovation.
How successful the programme will be remains to be seen. But what it demonstrates is that academic journals’ operating model is far too discredited for them to carry on as they are. They find themselves at a similar crunch point as all businesses involved in print publishing did in the 90s—but this time they cannot dodge the pressure to free up their content. Like newspapers two decades ago, scientific publishers must change radically to stay relevant, even if that means taking a cut in their profit margins.