Covid-19 Shows That Scientific Journals Need to Open Up

(Bloomberg Opinion) — One big change brought on by Covid-19 is that virtually all the scientific research being produced about it is free to read. Anyone can access the many preliminary findings that scholars are posting on “preprint servers.” Data are shared openly via a multitude of different channels. Scientific journals that normally keep their articles behind formidable paywalls have been making an exception for new research about the virus, as well as much (if not all) older work relevant to it.This response to a global pandemic is heartening and may well speed that pandemic to its end. But after that, what happens with scientific communication? Will everything go back behind the journal paywalls?

Well, no. Open-access advocates in academia have been pushing for decades to make more of their work publicly available and paywall-free, and in recent years they’ve been joined by the government agencies and large foundations that fund much scientific research. Covid-19 has accelerated this shift. I’m pretty sure there’s no going back. 

But the transition from a mostly closed system of scientific communication to a mostly open one will not be straightforward. Popular accounts often depict the move to open access as a simple toppling of a few for-profit publishers. As I have learned since writing such an account five years ago, the infrastructure around publishing, evaluating and repurposing scientific information has grown up over centuries and is not just going away.

The scientific publishing industry has already proved to be, by the standards of the modern media world, impressively resilient. Its staying power is more than just a business story. The industry’s structure shapes not just how science is communicated but how it is done, affecting the career incentives of scientists, the priorities of research universities and, to a certain extent, the course of scientific progress. To understand where scientific communication is headed, you must first understand how it got to be this way.

How it all began

Scientific journal publishing got its start in January 1665, when French lawyer Denis de Sallo began publishing the Journal des scavans (an archaic version of “savants”), which consisted of book reviews, obituaries and legal reports, as well as scientific articles. Two months later Henry Oldenburg, a German theologian employed as secretary of the recently established Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, started, as a for-profit side gig, a monthly publication with somewhat more focus. His Philosophical Transactions had book reviews and obits too, but the main attraction was reports of scientific discoveries and research — some from Royal Society members but most from Oldenburg’s correspondents around Europe — which Society members vetted before publication in an early form of peer review.

Both journals are still being published, which tells you something about the resilience of the medium. As opposed to the books and less-formal means of scientific communication that preceded them, they performed four main functions (this list paraphrases one by industry expert Michael Mabe) that still apply today:

Establishing who had an idea or performed an experiment first. Certifying quality, often through the mechanism of peer review. Recording the final, authorized versions of papers and archiving them. Disseminating papers to a targeted scholarly audience.

By the late 1700s some scientists were already complaining that there were too many journals for anyone to keep up with. The solution turned out to be yet more journals, increasingly dedicated to single disciplines as science became more specialized. In the 19th century many of these emerged from the burgeoning ranks of non-profit scientific societies, such as the American Medical Association (founded in 1847) and American Chemical Society (founded in 1876), but for-profit publishers played a role, too.

Early on they did so mainly in London. The Philosophical Magazine, founded in 1798 and now a journal of condensed-matter physics, became the first building block of the still-significant scientific publishing firm of Taylor & Francis. The Lancet and Nature, founded in 1823 and 1869, respectively, became the world’s two most famous commercial scientific journals. All started out as eclectic publications aimed at practitioners and general readers as much as scientists, but now are known chiefly for their peer-reviewed scientific articles.

It was in Germany, though, that the modern approach to commercial journal publishing took shape. As the country became the center of scientific research in the late 1800s and early 1900s, publishers such as Springer in Berlin and Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft (Academic Press) in Leipzig produced journals for scientific societies and signed up promising young scholars to launch new, even more specialized publications. They left the article-writing and also the editorial decisions to outside scientists; the publisher’s job was to keep the editorial process moving and handle copy-editing, typesetting, printing, distribution and marketing.

That tidy little business kept growing even through the hyperinflation and other ills that plagued Germany in the 1920s. Things did go backward with the Great Depression, the Nazi seizure of power and World War II, but after the war, big increases in research spending and university enrollments — first in the U.S., then elsewhere in the developed world — ushered in an entrepreneurial golden age for scientific publishing.

The postwar golden age

The Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft was under Communist control in East Germany and missed this boom, but former employees founded Academic Press and Interscience in New York, and a former intern built North-Holland Publishing in the Netherlands. Springer, meanwhile, got back on its feet with help from a Czech-born British Army officer who was detached to the press section of the British Embassy in Berlin after the war. The officer, who had taken the name Robert Maxwell, then started a joint venture with Springer in the U.K. that he later took control of, rechristened Pergamon Press and rapidly expanded. Maxwell wined and dined scientists around the world and launched International Journal of This after International Journal of That, before using the company to launch himself into a star-crossed career as full-fledged media mogul.

The specialized journals these companies started often had circulations in the low thousands or even hundreds. So production costs per copy were quite high, even without paying the authors. Before World War II, many smaller society journals made ends meet by actually charging authors per-page fees to publish; by contrast, the commercial publishers launching new journals after the war were able to get by on subscription charges that university librarians, particularly in the U.S., were willing to pay. Library budgets were growing, professors who published in the journals insisted that their universities subscribe and favorable exchange rates kept the prices charged by European publishers within reason in dollar terms.

The floating of the world’s major currencies in 1971, and the economic troubles that followed, brought complaints about high journal prices and kicked off a more complicated era for the business overall. New journals kept popping up, but the ranks of journal publishers began to consolidate. Leading that process was a relative newcomer to the field: Elsevier, a Dutch publisher best known in its home country for its encyclopedia, newspapers and eponymous weekly newsmagazine. Elsevier (pronounced el-suh-veer) began to dabble in scientific publishing in the 1930s, started its first English-language journal in 1947 and became a major force in the field after merging its scientific arm with North-Holland in 1970.

Soon after that, it found the leader who would drive it to the top. Pierre Vinken was a neurosurgeon who became a part-time editor at the non-profit medical abstracts service Excerpta Medica in the 1950s, moved into a full-time executive role in the 1960s and then persuaded his colleagues to convert to for-profit status so they could sell out to Elsevier in 1971. He became head of Elsevier’s science division in 1972 and of the whole company in 1979, bringing a relentless focus on profit maximization and shareholder value — a recent biography is titled (in Dutch) “Against Idealism.”

Scientific journals were Elsevier’s most profitable business, so increasing their number became key. Elsevier picked up Pergamon and its 418 journals from a cash-strapped Maxwell in 1991, then went on to add the Lancet and Academic Press to its portfolio, among many others. It merged with British publisher Reed in 1992 and today is the chief profit center of the most profitable and valuable media company that hardly anybody has heard of: Relx Plc boasts a market capitalization more than six times that of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., three times that of ViacomCBS Inc. and 36% higher than Thomson Reuters Corp.

In a report published last year, veteran industry analyst Claudio Aspesi estimated Elsevier’s share of the worldwide academic journal market at 17.5%. Springer Nature, the product of a 2015 merger between Springer and a number of scientific publishing properties owned by its fellow German publisher Holtzbrinck (including the aforementioned journal Nature), was No. 2 at around 13%. No. 3 at about 9% was John Wiley and Sons Inc., the venerable New York area publisher of Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, which expanded into scientific journals when it bought Interscience in 1961. Aspesi didn’t calculate a market share for Taylor & Francis, now a subsidiary of Informa Plc, but it’s generally seen as rounding out the industry’s Big Four. Together, they control between 40% and 50% of the market.

Measuring impact

A fifth key corporate power in scientific communication is Clarivate Plc, which is not a journal publisher but a provider of what it calls “insights and analytics to accelerate the pace of innovation.” Spun off from Thomson Reuters in 2016, it derives most of its revenue from a science division that has its roots in a 1955 Science article by American chemist-turned-librarian Eugene Garfield. Garfield believed that keeping track of the postwar explosion in scientific research required new approaches that the rise of the computer would enable. He founded a company to do this work, the Institute for Scientific Information, which Thomson acquired in 1992. The metrics it created ended up shaping science and the world in all sorts of unexpected ways.

One key concept in Garfield’s 1955 article was what he called the “impact factor,” a measure of influence based on how frequently an article was cited by others. In 1972 he unveiled his first ranking of journals by impact factor, with the Journal of the American Chemical Society coming in first. Such a metric, he mused at the time, might help librarians in deciding which journals to subscribe to and journal editors in looking for “objective and timely measures of their success.”

Editors working for commercial publishers have certainly taken heed. For-profit journals occupied 14 of the top 20 spots in the 2019 impact factor rankings, as opposed to just four in 1972. Cell Publications, founded by a molecular biologist and former Nature editor in 1974 and sold to Elsevier in 1999 for a rumored $100 million, is often held up as the apotheosis of the impact-maximization approach. But nowadays, Nature and its many spinoffs (Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, Nature Materials, Nature Energy, etc.) dominate the rankings.

Also paying attention to Garfield’s work were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who based the PageRank algorithm that spawned Google on nearly identical premises. So, for that matter, was Elsevier, which has built up its own set of research metrics to compete with Clarivate. Several smaller corporate players have entered the field as well.

The metrics these companies churn out now play a huge role in determining academic success. Hiring, tenure and grant decisions often turn on how many articles a scholar has published in high-impact journals, and international university rankings rely heavily on faculty publication and citation metrics as well. The measures pioneered by Garfield are surely more objective and fairer than previous gauges of prestige and success, but even he came to rue their overuse. Too heavy a reliance on performance metrics of any kind can shortchange creativity, innovation and other hard-to-measure things. The reliance on citation metrics in particular appears to discourage researchers from publishing negative or inconclusive results, producing an increasingly skewed picture of scientific knowledge and possibly encouraging scientific fraud. 

Big money

Although many in academia are uneasy about the ways in which private companies have come to shape scientific communication and research evaluation, what seems to spur the most vocal opposition is the money they make doing it. The overall market for scientific and medical information adds up to about $25 billion in revenue a year, according to a 2018 report from the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. Journal publishing accounts for $10 billion — or about 2% of overall spending on academic research, Belgian open-science expert Jean-Claude Burgelman estimated earlier this year.

That makes the industry sound kind of small, but it is quite profitable. Elsevier had an operating-profit margin of 37% last year, which helps explain the high valuation of its parent company. At Taylor & Francis the operating profit margin was 29%, at Wiley’s research publishing arm 27% and at Springer Nature (as reported in the prospectus for a canceled 2018 initial public offering) 23%. Just for comparison, the 2019 operating margin at famously profitable Google was 26%.

Being profitable is not a crime. Making those profits while paying authors and peer-reviewers nothing and many journal editors little to nothing, though, is a source of endless amazement and enragement in academia and beyond. When French materials scientist Sylvain Deville asked on Twitter in January for people to “Explain academic publishing to me like I am Five,” he got a lot of responses like this one from Ned Potter, a librarian at the University of York in the U.K.:

Cows make milk. They milk themselves. Other cows check the milk (for free). Cows – get this – PAY THE FARMER to take the milk away. Then the farmer (you won’t believe this, honestly) sells the milk *back to the cows.*

It’s not exactly the same cows. Those that produce the milk are professors and other researchers; those that buy it are generally librarians. Also, at the multidisciplinary journals Nature and Science, as well as most leading biomedical journals, the milkers (aka editors) are full-time staffers with substantial salaries. But the overall picture of universities handing over research papers for free and then paying to read them is correct. U.S. college and university libraries spent $2.3 billion on subscriptions for scientific journals and other publications in the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, or 28% of their total expenditures. In 1993-1994 that was $690.4 million, 17% of total expenditures and about $1.2 billion in current dollars.

This trajectory is not the one that many foresaw as the internet rose to ubiquity in the 1990s. Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for the World Wide Web intended it as a means of better communication among scientists; it was widely assumed that most such communication would be free of charge, and that the scientific publishing business was headed for major disruption. A now-legendary 1995 Forbes article about Elsevier was headlined, “The Internet’s First Victim?”

It most definitely was not. Instead, Elsevier kept buying journals and investing heavily in their digitization — and other big publishers followed. They began offering “big deals” in which, as one university librarian described it in 2001, “libraries agree to buy electronic access to all of a commercial publisher’s journals for a price based on current payments to that publisher, plus some increment.” Along with Jstor, created by the Mellon Foundation in the late 1990s to digitize back issues of journals published by scholarly societies and university presses, these deals expanded the amount of research at the fingertips of university students and faculty, while slashing the cost of storing paper journals. University libraries would appear to be getting more for their money today than they did in the mid-1990s.

Still, it’s a lot of money. The University of California system’s recently expired Elsevier subscription cost a reported $10 million a year, and many of the journals included in such big deals are seldom read. The digitization of journal content has also made the journals’ high cost apparent to lots of people who aren’t university librarians. Anyone with an internet connection can find just about any article in the archives of Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and other publishers, but without possessing the right university library card (not every school subscribes to every publication) or a steep per-article payment, you usually can’t read past the opening paragraphs.

Against paywalls

These digital paywalls have inspired major efforts to get around them. One of the best known, because of its tragic end, was that of internet activist Aaron Swartz, who downloaded millions of Jstor articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network starting in September 2010, intending to make them free to all. After being caught in early 2011, he gave up the downloaded documents, and Jstor asked that no charges be pressed. But the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston plowed ahead, and Swartz killed himself in 2013 while awaiting trial. By then, Kazakhstani computer programmer Alexandra Elbakyan had started an effort to make all academic-journal articles free to read via SciHub, a self-proclaimed “pirate website” that operates outside the reach of Western authorities and publishers.

There’s a growing number of legal paths around the paywalls, too. Public sharing of the aforementioned preprints (unedited early drafts) started with physicists’ ArXiv server in 1991, was followed by other disciplines over the decades and has now exploded in response to Covid-19. With Harvard leading the way in 2008, universities have also established policies in which professors are expected to assign joint copyright to the institution (they can opt out) when they publish an article in a journal, and post a copy in its open-access repository. Social networks for researchers, such as ResearchGate and, allow scholars to make their own published works available for easy search and downloading, a practice some big publishers have made their peace with while others have not. Funding agencies in Europe and the U.S. now require that publications based on research they paid for be made freely available after an embargo of six or 12 months. And paywalled journals often make public the appendices and datasets that go with their articles, which can be of more interest to other researchers than the articles themselves.

Still, the pressure to make all research publications free — or at least all those enabled by substantial government or foundation funding — keeps growing. Coalition S, a European Commission project backed by the research-funding agencies of 12 European countries, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, is pushing for all the research its members fund to be published open access, with no embargo, by next year. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is contemplating a similar shift for the U.S.

Paying for free articles

Of course, publishing scientific articles, even if you don’t pay the authors or the peer reviewers or in some cases even editors, still costs money. Publishing veteran Kent Anderson’s has an occasionally updated list of the “102 Things Journal Publishers Do,” many of which are less-than-earthshaking — “depositing content and data,” “pay for and comply with terms of publisher insurance policies,” etc. — but do add up. Even preprint servers, which perform only a few of the 102 functions, cost a couple million dollars a year to run.

So far preprint servers have mostly relied on donations to pay the bills, which may not be the most sustainable financial model. Open-access journals, meanwhile, live off what are called article processing charges — a modern version of the page fees that helped sustain journals before World War II.

Two of the most prominent all-open-access journals are the Public Library of Open Science’s PLoS One and Springer Nature’s Nature Communications, both multi-disciplinary publications with a biomedical tilt. Publishing a research article in the first will set you back $1,695; in the second, $5,380. For those funded by the likes of the National Institutes of Health or the Gates Foundation, or who have jobs at well-endowed universities, neither of these fees represents much of a barrier, and both journals waive fees for researchers from the very poorest countries. But a sizable minority of scholars do get stuck with the bill or simply can’t pay, and in general those from universities, countries and academic disciplines with fewer resources struggle the most.

The reliance on article fees also tilts journals toward publishing more articles, and there are “predatory journals” that will publish anything as long you pay. But the divergent fees at PLoS One and Nature Communications are a sign that even legitimate open-access journals can take very different approaches. PLoS One accepts two-thirds of the papers submitted to it, according to industry analyst Christos Petrou, and publishes two-and-a-half times as many as Nature Communications. This allows Nature Communications to exercise greater quality control, resulting in its articles having four to five times the average impact (as measured by citations) as those in PLoS One — which has quite intentionally not aimed to maximize its impact factor, welcoming research papers that report negative or inconclusive results. Career-minded scholars seem to still care about impact, though. Submissions to PLoS One have been declining, and the Public Library of Open Science, which also publishes six more specialized open-access journals, reported a deficit of $6 million on revenue of $32 million in its 2018 financial statement.

To allow for such differences in business models, the funders in Coalition S are not planning to cap the article fees they’re willing to pay, but they are demanding transparency from publishers about costs, with the goal of keeping journal profit margins down. Another approach, adopted by multiple European national university systems, is to replace Big Deal journal-subscription contracts with similarly priced “transformative” deals, in which publishers agree to publish their faculty’s research without paywalls or article fees, while continuing to grant subscription access to paywalled articles.

In the more dispersed U.S. academic landscape, such deals can be harder to arrange. A few U.S. universities have entered into them, with the biggest North American transformative deal so far announced recently between Springer Nature and the University of California system. The UC system has been unable to agree on terms with Elsevier, though, and has done without direct access to new Elsevier journal articles for more than a year now. Meanwhile, other universities in the U.S. have been breaking their big deals with publishers into narrower contracts, a practice that seems likely to accelerate as Covid-driven budget cuts begin to pinch, presumably making it harder to finance a wholesale shift to open access.

The shape of the open-access future

Subscriptions are a simple, time-honored and clearly sustainable way to pay for a publishing operation. The news media’s re-embrace of them, after decades of experimentation with advertising-supported business models online, is evidence that this may be even more true in the digital age. Scientific publishers are being pushed to abandon subscriptions and embrace open science for a lot of good reasons, as the Covid-19 crisis has made clear, but there will be consequences.

The most perverse of those consequences, from the perspective of many open-access advocates, is an increase in the power and profits of the big commercial publishers. Clout has already begun shifting away from scientific societies, which often rely on journal subscriptions to subsidize other activities or as a perk to retain and recruit members. Many societies seem at a loss for how to proceed in an open-access environment. Several have recently handed their journal operations over to commercial publishers — a trickle that some in the industry expect to become a flood.

Those commercial publishers, meanwhile, have been buying up preprint servers, academic social networks, journal-hosting platforms, research evaluation tools and other services meant to make them more essential to academia. Elsevier stopped calling itself a publisher a while ago — it’s now “a global information analytics business specializing in science and health.”

In 2011 Claudio Aspesi, then an analyst at brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein and Co., advised clients to steer clear of Elsevier parent Relx out of fear that library budget crunches and the rise of open access would threaten profit margins. After the share price roughly doubled over the next three years, he concluded that maybe open access wasn’t as big a threat to its business as he had thought. Lately he’s been examining the industry on behalf of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a pro-open access group, and finding reasons for alarm not for shareholders but for universities.

In an article published in Science in May, Aspesi and MIT Press Director Amy Brand warned that Elsevier and other big publishers are positioning themselves to play ever bigger roles in measuring researchers’ productivity and universities’ quality, and possibly even to act as one-stop portals for the global exchange of information within scientific disciplines. “The dominance of a limited number of social networks, shopping services, and search engines shows us how internet platforms based on data and analytics can tend toward monopoly,” they wrote. Such concentration isn’t inevitable in scientific communication, they concluded, but preventing it will require “the academic community to act in coordination.”

As anybody who’s sat through a faculty meeting knows, that’s a lot easier said than done. The commercial scientific communication industry exists in part because professors aren’t so great at collective action. It also exists because they have other things to focus on, such as their research, and there’s no reason why for-profit service providers shouldn’t continue to help scientists share and make use of that research. The challenge will be to keep the service providers from running the show.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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