Can science outpace commercial publishers?

Can science outpace commercial publishers?

Universities still pay millions to commercial publishers of scholarly journals. But why exactly? Research funders and universities are working to find alternatives.

Universities and institutions used to pay huge sums of money to publishers for subscriptions to scientific journals in which their articles appeared. So publicly funded research disappeared behind a paywall. The academic community believed this had to change.

Nowadays, there is more “open access”: universities still pay publishers, but articles are available to everyone for free. But it won’t get cheaper.

newly Underlined Journalistic research platform Follow the money Once again millions are spent on open access every year. The so-called “Golden Road” is particularly problematic. Institutions then pay publishers to make entire journals available directly online, rather than through library archives, for example.

Publishing houses’ profits reach billions, according to one example Recent research From the University of Groningen. In the list of profit ratios, it is barely inferior to Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The CEOs of Wolters Kluwer and RELX, the parent companies of Wiley, Springer, and Elsevier, among others, earn an average of more than 7.5 million euros a year (about forty times the salary of the Dutch Prime Minister).


These large publishers are not transparent about costs and benefits. This is a difficult point, says Darko Janssen, open access policy officer at Universities Netherlands (UNL). “Research funders around the world, including the NWO, have been calling for greater clarity for years.” They have united in the COAlition S partnership.

The objective part of a scientific publication is of course provided by researchers. Janssen: “But everything that comes with it isn’t. That’s why we want to know exactly how much money is being spent on reviewing, editing, formatting and promoting the publication. Publishers are not yet able or willing to provide that insight into the cash book.”

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According to the UNL employee, criticism has escalated in the European academic community in recent years. “The fact that publishers like Elsevier are now part of a larger company like RELX, which is shareholder-led and aims to maximize profits, is controversial. Is it still desirable for us to spend public money on their products? Are the prices they charge reasonable?” “There’s a lot of discussion about that.”

NWO policy officer Jeroen Sondervan agrees. “We see ever-increasing prices and hear about ever-increasing profits. The fact that we depend on such parties is not a sustainable situation in the long term.

43 million

According to Follow the Money, universities together spend €62 million a year on open access. But there’s something to be said for that, UNL’s Janssen explains. “For universities, this amounts to around €43 million and the rest is spent on other research institutions.” And they still pay for regular reading subscriptions with that money. “Universities were spending about the same amount annually on scientific publications and open access.”

Diamond Road

An option being explored to be less dependent on profit-driven publishers is the diamond route. The academic community itself is trying to become the publisher. “This is something that is being adopted in Europe,” Janssen explains. “But the question is whether that will really be cheaper. Because we don’t have the capacity or the scope for that at the moment. It will likely take many years before this becomes a full alternative.”

This different publishing system also requires a different perspective on research evaluation, believes Sondervan (NWO). “The daily impact factor, or points system by which we evaluate journals, is used by major publishers to justify their exclusivity, monopoly and high costs. It should be weighed less heavily.”

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The publishing process also needs to be revised, says the NWO employee: For example, scholars working together can carry out traditional tasks that are now often exclusive to the journal. This will create more independence for researchers and institutions.

“It’s not necessarily easy,” he continues. “Three years ago, NWO provided initial support for the diamond open access publishing platform 31 journals have been registered so far and are therefore publishing on an independent platform. This is good news, but network building, distribution and marketing are their own responsibility. They cannot benefit from the infrastructure “There is still work to be done here.”

Pros and Cons

COAlition S argues in a recently published proposal for how the academic community can take greater ownership of open access publishing. By responding to the online survey, which will be available online until the end of November, they hope to get a clearer picture of what scholars will expect from open access in the near future.

We have to weigh the pros and cons, Janssen concludes. “We first need to get clarity from publishers so we can assess whether they are charging fair prices for their services. If we don’t want to pay, we have to prove that we can do it ourselves at a lower cost. Until then, there will be no informed choice.”

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