Who's Profiting From Academic Papers? Too Few, A Study Argues

The process to be published academically is arduous -- as it should be. There are reviews by grant committees and the university as to whether the research is worth funding. Then there is the process of collecting the data in keeping with ethical guidelines at the institution you are at. After figuring that out, you submit your findings along with a wealth of researched literature to show that you have done something new.

Once the paper reaches the journal, anonymous referees look at the content. They pick it apart, often rejecting it harshly because there isn't enough in it to move the research forward. So to have a published paper is a gem, a feather in the cap of a graduate student or a line in the resume to help a young professor move up in his or her career.

Here's the challenge, however. Journals are expensive to subscribe to. University libraries are having trouble keeping up, in some cases, which makes it difficult for those researchers on limited salaries (post-docs!) to get access to the literature they need if the university doesn't have it. To add fuel to this debate, one study postulates that the concentration of journal publishers is a little too cozy.

Even in the electronic age, many people still rely on academic libraries for their access to many journal subscriptions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a nutshell, the research discovered that more than 50% of papers published in 2013 came from just five publishers, as opposed to 20% in 1973. This was particularly enhanced in the social sciences, but not as prevalent in the humanities.

"What is it that [journals] provide that is so essential to the scientific community that we collectively agree to devote an increasingly large proportion of our universities budgets to them?" the researchers ask in their paper, which was published in PLOS One -- an open-access journal. (The work was led by Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal's school of library and information science.)

"Of course, most journals rely on publishers’ systems to handle and review the manuscripts; however, while these systems facilitate the process, it is the researchers as part of the scientific community who perform peer review. Hence, this essential step of quality control is not a value added by the publishers but by the scientific community itself."

Some argue it's not the journals that are valuable in themselves, but the people who are vetting the papers -- such as papers written by students attempting to graduate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So why bother with the subscriptions at all? As Larivière points out in a CBC interview, there are alternatives such as open-access journals, websites that publish papers without peer review, and institutions that make their data publicly available for others to use and critique. But change takes time, especially in a traditional institution such as a university.

He added that the profit margins are high because of the unpaid nature of the participants. Authors are not paid for their contributions, nor peer reviewers for their time. "The quality control is free, the raw material is free, and then you charge very, very high amounts – of course you come up with very high profit margins," Larivière said.

Perhaps the right question to ask is not only about journal concentration, but how best to distribute data when it is received. Is a journal the only way? Or is there another method to get the information out there that is as valuable to research. If researchers, publishers and libraries can begin discussions in that direction, perhaps better solutions could come from it.

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Top image: An academic library at Graz University, which has subscriptions to thousands of academic papers -- just like others all over the world. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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