Another old-fashioned business model runs headlong into reality

We’ve previously looked at how the publishing industry in general is being upset by the advent of e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and reading apps for smartphones and tablets.  Indeed, the e-readers themselves are rapidly becoming something of a ‘loss leader‘ compared to the content sold for consumption using them.  For example, some market analysts derided Amazon for selling what they claimed was ‘only’ about three-quarters of a million Kindles during the first quarter of this year, after the Christmas rush was over.  However, if the commonly quoted figure is correct of plus-or-minus $120 in profit on the sale of e-books to be read on each of those Kindles, that means Amazon’s in line to make $90 million in profit on that quarter’s Kindle sales alone.  Averaging that over a year and adding the Christmas rush, and it’s clear the company may be making between half a billion and three-quarters of a billion dollars in annual profit off e-books alone.  No wonder traditional publishers are hurting!

The same trend is beginning to affect academic and scientific publishing.  For decades specialist and professional journals have charged subscribers exorbitant amounts, because they were the only place that the latest research was published.  It was literally a seller’s market.  Now governments and consumers are putting their foot down.  The Economist reports:

IF THERE is any endeavour whose fruits should be freely available, that endeavour is surely publicly financed science. Morally, taxpayers who wish to should be able to read about it without further expense. And science advances through cross-fertilisation between projects. Barriers to that exchange slow it down.

There is a widespread feeling that the journal publishers who have mediated this exchange for the past century or more are becoming an impediment to it. One of the latest converts is the British government. On July 16th it announced that, from 2013, the results of taxpayer-financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute.

. . .

Criticism of journal publishers usually boils down to two things. One is that their processes take months, when the internet could allow them to take days. The other is that because each paper is like a mini-monopoly, which workers in the field have to read if they are to advance their own research, there is no incentive to keep the price down. The publishers thus have scientists—or, more accurately, their universities, which pay the subscriptions—in an armlock. That, combined with the fact that the raw material (manuscripts of papers) is free, leads to generous returns. In 2011 Elsevier, a large Dutch publisher, made a profit of £768m on revenues of £2.06 billion—a margin of 37%. Indeed, Elsevier’s profits are thought so egregious by many people that 12,000 researchers have signed up to a boycott of the company’s journals.

. . .

Support has been swelling for open-access scientific publishing: doing it online, in a way that allows anyone to read papers free of charge. The movement started among scientists themselves, but governments are now, as Britain’s announcement makes clear, paying attention and asking whether they, too, might benefit from the change.

. . .

A revolution, then, has begun. Technology permits it; researchers and politicians want it. If scientific publishers are not trembling in their boots, they should be.

There’s more at the link.  It makes interesting reading, particularly for those in the ‘publish or perish’ professions.

I think this change is long overdue.  Amazon and its imitators have already revolutionized general publishing;  why should scientific publishing be immune?



  1. I travel a lot and enjoy reading.

    I bought a ColorNook.

    It's easy to cary and I can load it up with plenty of books before getting on the plane.

    And I can charge its battery from my laptop's USB port.

  2. One question about academic publishing would be the process of peer review. Someone would still need to serve as a gate-keeper of a sort for those journals that want to maintain peer-review. Yes, I know, peer-review has gotten some deserved black-eyes in the past few years, but it still serves as a good back-stop for catching things that need to be corrected (bad methodology, unclear write-up, what have you) and that a straight editor might not recognize as problems.

    Full disclosure: I have published in peer-reviewed journals.


  3. About a 15 years ago, I started reading some online journals, like the New England Journal of Medicine, and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It's no longer possible. Most journals have gone over to a subscription-based service, so they're not only making wide margins on the paper version, they're supplementing that with digital subscriptions – and bits are even cheaper than paper and ink.

    While I understand they're in business to make money, and don't begrudge them that, I always thought that journals and newspapers should provide older content for free. You're not paying for a "reprint" or photocopy; it's aged bits.

    There's a saying in the newspaper business along the lines of "news at breakfast, bird cage liner by dinner" on how worthless old news is. It's a perfect justification for allowing free access to older papers.

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