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For decades now, the academic’s mantra for survival has been “publish or perish”. Academic employment is more precarious than ever before, and academics must stay relevant by doing cutting-edge research and by sharing that research with the public, usually in the written form. As well as disseminating research, publications act as authoritative markers, certifying an academic’s reputation as a knowledge-creator.

All of this suggests that the relationship between academic and publisher is an important one, possibly the most important in an academic’s career. Indeed, academics are beholden to publishers and their journals, not only to disseminate research but to bestow on them the mark of ‘quality research’. Publishers are measure-bearers, the gatekeepers of ‘good’ research.

But this relationship is deeply broken.

Consider the process for research publication from the academic perspective, in 2023:

  • Academics write up the paper that describes their research and findings, and submits this to a journal that is owned by a publisher.
  • Publishers have style-guides on their websites, with which the academic must comply. This covers document formatting, font style and size, reference style, and image and figure formatting.
  • The publisher sends the article out to anonymous reviewers – other academics, who read and provide comments on the article.
  • If the article passes peer review, it will be published. The publisher performs final edits and formatting. The article is published as part of a journal issue, increasingly online only.

The relationship between publishers and academics is wholly transactional; coordinated through a series of emails in which publishers assign deadlines and academics deliver content. It may seem as though this has strayed far from an historical, probably idealised, relationship in which the writer and publisher worked together as colleagues to bring an article to press. But while we might lament this imagined past, the truth is that for publishers, now is the golden age of academic publishing. Scholarly publishing has never been more profitable.

In 2019, Vox reported that the revenue of Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers, grew by 2 percent to a total of USD $3.2 billion in 2018. The Vox article noted, “Gemma Hersh, a senior vice president for global policy at Elsevier, says the company’s net profit margin was 19 percent (more than double the net profit for Netflix).” The 2022 Annual Report of RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, reported that Elsevier’s revenue for 2022 was USD $3.5 billion, with USD $1.3 billion in profits. Elsevier’s profit growth was +5% from the previous year.

Where are the costs in the publishing process?  It’s difficult to know from the outside, and publishers aren’t exactly transparent with their finances. But what we do know is that academics are not paid by publishers for any of their roles in the publication process. They are not paid for written content; they are not paid for peer review; sometimes journal editorial boards are also academics who volunteer their time for free. The only obvious costs to publishers are coordination costs, such as coordinating submissions, peer reviews and journal issue schedules. What used to be the most obvious publishing cost – printing – is no longer a given, now that many journals are published digitally.

Publishers make their enormous profits by charging subscriptions fees – or increasingly, article processing charges (more on that soon) – for access to their journals. In other words, they sell access to journal articles back to the very research institutions and universities whose academics provided the articles to the publisher for free. Cheeky.

How do they do this? It’s all down to copyright law. Copyright automatically grants an exclusive set of rights to the author of a written work. These exclusive rights include the right to publish the work, to copy the work and to share the work online. ‘Exclusive’ in the copyright context means that no one other than the copyright owner can exercise one of these rights unless they have the copyright owner’s permission or they can rely on one of the (very narrow) legal exceptions. When academic authors submit their research articles to journals, they must usually agree to a publishing agreement. These agreements routinely transfer copyright ownership in the article to the publisher or require the academic to agree that they will not distribute or share copies of the article without the publisher’s permission. The publisher’s permission is usually contingent on the payment of a fee.

Needless to say, the relationship between academics and publishers has been strained for some time. Cracks appeared in the early days of internet distribution, when academics first began to question the publishers’ value proposition that they provided the only (or best) avenue to get research from writer to reader. Internet dissemination, even through mediums like blogs, meant that this proposition was no longer true: research could be shared immediately, to everyone, everywhere, for free. The open access (OA) movement, which began in the early-to-mid 1990s, specifically questioned why people and institutions without the financial means to pay publishers’ subscription fees should be cut off from the world’s knowledge in the internet age.

The open access movement began with a process known as self-archiving, where academics would deposit (‘self-archive’) copies of their published articles in subject-based or institutionally-hosted online repositories that were free for the public to access. Most Australian universities now have institutional repositories, and self-archiving remains a common practice today. There are several ways that academics are able to do this legally. They can refuse to transfer copyright ownership in their article to their publisher, instead granting the publisher only a licence (permission) to publish the work. Or they can ask for the publisher’s permission to self-archive their work after transferring copyright, which publishers often grant after an embargo of up to 12 months. Lastly, academics can self-archive an earlier version of their work (usually before peer review and formatting), over which the publishers do not have a claim.

Some early OA advocates established publishing houses to publish journals openly from the outset, usually by releasing articles online under Creative Commons licences. In the early 2000s, for example, BioMed Central was founded in the United Kingdom and the Public Library of Science (PLOS) was founded in the United States; both were set up to publish open access journals in the sciences. PLOS continues to operate as a non-profit OA publisher today. BioMed Central was acquired by Springer in 2008.

Little by little, traditional publishers began to experiment with open access publishing. They engaged with OA publishing as a ‘flipped’ commercial model – instead of charging universities, libraries and individuals a fee to access and read articles, they charged 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 that is made available to the masses for free. 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 downright extravagant. The APC to publish in Nature, one of Springer Nature’s flagship journals, is USD $11,690 per article. Nature is a hybrid journal, meaning that issues may contain both OA and non-OA articles, and Springer Nature also charges subscription fees for access to the journal. One of Springer Nature’s most expensive fully open access journals is Nature Communications, for which the APC is USD $6,290 per article. In 2021 and 2022, Nature Communications published over 6000 articles each year. By our estimates, this means that Nature Communications generated over USD $37,740,000 (yes, that’s over 37 million dollars) in APCs in a single year. And that’s just one journal – Springer Nature publishes roughly 600 fully OA and 2,200 hybrid journals.

Clearly, open access has become a lucrative business model for publishers.

But where does the money to pay APCs come from? Academics must scramble to find the funds to pay these fees from research budgets, which are getting tighter over time. Our project interviewed researchers (we conducted 52 interviews with 67 participants) from ten Australian universities and multiple disciplines across science, technology, engineering, maths, humanities, arts, social sciences, communications, business, law and education. Our interviewees told us that finding funds to pay for APCs was a source of “a lot of stress” across the board. Often, APC funds were cobbled together from multiple sources, including external research grants, library budgets and Faculty and School research budgets. “It’s not an easy process and we never seem to have enough money,” one academic said. Paying for APCs sometimes meant making difficult choices between getting published and having access to other opportunities, such as attending conferences with registration fees or hiring research assistants.

Several interviewees recounted stories of researchers – especially early career researchers – paying for APCs from their personal finances. We were told that researchers were “actually funding [APCs] from their own pocket, you know… there [isn’t] a widespread pool of money within the university for people to draw on.” That researchers will spend thousands of dollars of their own money on publishers’ fees reflects the intense pressure that researchers are under to publish their work. Researchers cannot secure permanent employment, be eligible for promotion, or win research grants without a track record of ‘high quality’ publications, and these publications are increasingly expensive.

The high fees and extravagant profits embedded in the publishing system are a source of growing frustration for academics. There are stories of entire editorial boards quitting journals in protest of extreme and “unethical” APCs – as occurred at Elsevier in 2019 and again in 2023. Indeed, the academics that we interviewed were highly critical of the amounts that publishers charge for APCs, calling these amounts “excessive”, “ridiculous”, “exorbitant”, “price goug[ing]” and “a scam”. Academics told us that they did not believe that APCs reflected the costs incurred by publishers, but that publishers “charge what the market will bear”. They believe that APCs are “completely driven by what, to be frank, the publishers think they can get away with”.

What do academics think about the scholarly publishing system?

A selection of quotes from our data:

“We have taxpayers paying my salary to do work. Okay, so that’s one. And then I pay with taxpayer money to get [my work] published, and the library pays again to subscribe to the publication, and so on and so forth. It’s just ridiculous. It’s the most horrible thing. It’s shameful.”

“Well, I have opinions about the entire financial business model of academic publishing, which is that it is the worst, most cynical system imaginable. And it doesn’t really matter if you charge for the publication or for the subscription. I think, if you charge for both, that’s even worse. But it’s as bad regardless if you pay for it at the beginning or at the end.”

“I think the journals have done brilliantly of having us all over a barrel of producing for free with having to buy back our own material.”

“What I don’t like about the current model is that the universities pay millions and millions of dollars every year to a publishing house that does very, very little other than scooping up the licence fees. That’s what I don’t like, I don’t like the way that it … I mean, it’s a monster, and it just grows on itself.”

There is a question to ask here about where the models for scholarly publishing are headed. For universities with budgetary constraints, there are serious issues about the long-term sustainability of paying higher and higher fees to publish and access research. Despite some overtures about progressing towards more affordable, fully OA research dissemination, real solutions are unlikely to come from the publishing sector. Subscription fees and APCs are, after all, how publishers make their money. As one of our interviewees observed,

“Scholarly publishing is a business model and the sooner we accept that, you know… this is a business model. So they will always, their business is making money, not necessarily creating access to knowledge. So that will always be there. So unless you decide to take that out of their hands and somebody else is in charge of distribution and dissemination, that’s always going to be the case with them, whether they are multinationals, whether they’re small, they are a business”.

We can imagine ways that the services provided by publishers might be disaggregated from the distribution function. Coordinating peer review is one of the more essential features that publishers currently provide for assessing research quality and rigour. As noted already, academics perform the act of peer review for free, but there is editor and publisher labour in identifying and securing appropriate peer reviewers for an article’s subject matter, ensuring that reviews are returned on time, and liaising between authors and reviewers so that the process remains “double blind” (i.e. that neither are aware of the other’s identity) to prevent bias.

Why not redirect university APC and journal subscription budgets towards funding an independent, not-for-profit entity with the sole purpose of coordinating and managing peer review? Once articles have passed the quality measures of peer review, they can be released online, for free to the world. Peer review is a faulty method for quality control in many ways, but an independent entity could be tasked with researching and testing better methods for determining article quality that can operate instead of or in conjunction with peer review. Additionally, having peer review centrally managed would make it easier for universities to record and reward the time spent by academics in conducting peer review as part of their formal workload.

Ideas like this are not new, so what is stopping universities from developing alternatives to commercial publishing? Unfortunately, the university sector is deeply embedded in the ecosystem that publishers have built around content to generate markers of success. Where researchers publish, how often, with whom, and how their work is cited are used as signifiers of individual research success, which are used by funding bodies and other associations to award prestigious grants and fellowships. Universities trade on the research reputation of their academics to attract industry partners and recruit international and domestic students. Research metrics and student outcomes are combined to determine national and global rankings of universities, and are relied upon in government funding models for the tertiary sector.

Our interviews reveal a clear appetite for change amongst academics who are frustrated and disillusioned with commercial publishers and APC-driven open access. But there is massive structural inertia too. So many university processes are now tied into publisher controlled systems for measuring prestige that change will be hard and will require concerted and collective efforts within and across institutions.

Universities already have within their control an important tool for pushing back against publisher demands: copyright. When copyright content, including journal articles, are created within the scope of employment, it will often be the employer and not the employee that owns copyright. We conducted a cross-institutional analysis of the contracts and policies that govern employment and copyright in Australia universities. We found that universities across Australia already claim an interest in the copyright in journal articles produced by academic authors. Sometimes the interest claimed is ownership and other times the interest is a perpetual licence to use the article for educational purposes and/or place a copy of the article in the institutional open access repository. The foundation already exists, then, to resist publishers’ broad claims to control how research is disseminated and to charge exorbitant fees for open access.

The IP arrangements for rights retention are in place at many Australian universities and most universities have existing online repositories through which they can make research openly available. But for too long, universities have treated copyright management as a matter for individual researchers. Universities act as if, and allow researchers to act as if, the whole of copyright lies in researchers’ hands. Universities not only leave researchers to enter publishing agreements with terms that transfer rights – and power – to publishers, but they encourage researchers to publish in the best-ranked journals they can. All the university systems for appointments, promotion and recognition steer academics in exactly this direction. Is it any wonder that shouldering workplace pressures to “publish or perish” and faced with enormous power imbalances between individual authors and giant corporate publishers, academics sign whatever publishing agreement is placed in front of them?

For change to actually occur, it needs to happen at the institutional level. Universities must bring the weight of the academic establishment to negotiations with publishers. They should actively assert their rights: communicating them to researchers and putting in place the systems to give effect to them. Universities should be proactive and vocal about using institutional OA repositories: streamlining the systems for authors to deposit their work into repositories, and ensuring that repository copies of content are used within courses and for processes of performance review, reward and promotion. It is only through consistent and collective efforts to actively make use of the rights that they retain will universities be able to force publishers to adjust to a commonly held position where universities, not individual researchers, hold copyright.

The academy has spent years moulding itself around the business models of commercial publishers. That approach is becoming unsustainable. Universities need to take charge over how their research is disseminated and used. Copyright can be a tool to enable open access: it’s time that universities used it.