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In early May 2023, the entire academic board of Neuroimage, a top global journal for brain-imaging research, walked off the job. The mass resignation by more than 40 leading scientists was in protest of the “unethical” charging practices of the journal’s publisher, Elsevier.

Elsevier is one of the “big four” publishers in scholarly publishing. The others are Springer Nature, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis. In 2022, Elsevier reported revenue of USD $3.5 billion, with USD $1.3 billion in profits. Springer Nature have not released their 2022 figures, but in 2021 reported 1.7 billion euros in revenue and 443.4 million euros in profit.

Publishers are able to generate such strong profits because of how the academic publishing industry works. In short, the industry relies on substantial unpaid labour by academics.

Academics write the articles that are published in scholarly journals, and they do the quality checks by performing peer review of articles submitted by other academics. Academic authors are not paid by publishers for their content, nor are they paid for peer review services: it is not uncommon for peer review work to be ignored in calculating academic workload: it is just something people do, to support colleagues and the discipline.

Additionally, many editorial boards are made up of academics working in a volunteer capacity or for a small stipend (as was the case with Neuroimage).

It is the publisher who owns the journal titles. They provide the tools to format the publications and make them readable online. Commercial publishing houses re-package this content and put it behind a paywall, selling subscriptions to access the journals to universities – the same universities that hire the academics that wrote, reviewed and edited the articles – as well as to industry and the general public. Publishers frequently bundle subscriptions to multiple journals and sell these as packages to maximise their revenue. Subscription fees are hefty. Australian universities spend millions of dollars every year subscribing to journals, so that their academics can read the latest research in their field.

Universities are supported in large part by public funds.  In addition to student fees for the courses they teach, universities receive funding from the federal government generated through the tax system. In addition to paying for access to publications made available through the library, universities pay further licence fees to provide students with access to publications used in the classroom. Academics also compete for dedicated publicly funded research grants through the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. These grants and other funding sources are used to support the research activities of academics, including writing and reviewing journal articles.

In summary: ultimately, the scholarly publishing industry is being effectively subsidised by volunteer academic labour, that is funded through public money: universities use public funding and student fees to then buy back the products of this labour in the form of subscriptions.

There are convincing arguments that research publications should be made freely available to the public that has funded the research in the first place. Why should the public pay first to fund the research and then again to read it? The case is especially persuasive for research with immediate and significant public impacts, such as medical research or climate change research. This is the rationale that underpins the open access movement: that publicly funded research should be free and open to read.

The open access movement has been around for decades but has not had great success in disrupting the scholarly publishing industry. Publishers have created a ‘flipped’ commercial model of open access – instead of charging universities, libraries and individuals a fee to access and read articles, they charge authors a fee to publish their work. These fees have become known as APCs or article processing charges. Ostensibly, APCs are about recovering the costs of publishing research. But publishers provide no breakdowns of the actual costs of publication, and APCs vary wildly from journal to journal. The fees to publish in highly respected journals can be extravagant. High APC costs can exclude a lot of researchers from submitting work to particular journals, with commercial factors impacting the diversity and quality of research in a title. This is what caused the editorial board of Neuroimage to quit – they felt that the journal’s APC of £2,700 per article bore no relation to the costs involved in publishing the journal.

Universities have not taken much responsibility themselves for developing a public infrastructure to make taxpayer funded research freely available to the public. Rather, the research sector is deeply embedded in a for-profit ecosystem built around content by commercial publishers. Publishers generate broader classifications for journals: such as, Q1 and Q2 or High impact journals. These signifiers provide a shorthand method of determining journal quality and the career performance of authors. They are also used by government funding bodies and other associations to award prestigious grants and fellowships. Universities trade on the research reputation of their academics to attract research funding and industry partners and recruit international and domestic students. Publishers also increasingly produce analytics and reports that Universities use to measure the research productivity of their academic staff.

The unethical behaviour that led to the resignation of the editorial board of Neuroimage was a protest against the Elsevier monetising the reputation of the journal, where that reputation had been achieved off the backs of past and current editors and authors. Elsevier was testing what level of cost academics would tolerate. This is unethical. But it is the broader research ecosystem that is creating incentives for price gouging, and huge profits are only possible because the whole enterprise is subsidised by free labour and, ultimately, taxpayers.