Saturday, May 18, 2024

The state of academic publishing in 3 graphs, 6 trends, and 4 thoughts

EcologyThe state of academic publishing in 3 graphs, 6 trends, and 4 thoughts

Eleven years ago I shared a fairly heavily researched summary of the state of academic publishing. I mostly argued that OA (aka author pays) was a red herring and that we should really pay attention to the profit motives (or not) of the publisher. I would argue that analysis mostly still holds, but a lot has changed. Here are three new data graphs, five major trends I see since then, followed by some of my reflections on what this all means and briefly, what we should do.

Figure 1 – the growth of # of papers published in total and broken out by publisher 2011-2021. Green are for-profit publishers. Yellow/Gold are newer OA only publishers (for profit except PLOS). Blue are not-for-profit publishers. Colored region indicates papers in ISI. White block indicates additional papers in Scopus. There are probably some different proportions among publishers for in-Scopus-not-in-ISI papers, but I don’t think the fundamental story changes much.Sources provides total publications in Scopus; Table 1 of for ISI journals by publisher.

Figure 2 – increasing fraction of papers published Gold OA (pay to publish). Source

Figure 3 – brand extension of Nature journals – from the one core Nature journal in 2009 to 34 in 2024. I did not track years 2019-2022. Note that Nature was bought by Springer in 2015 which appears to have induced a step change in behavior. This is just Nature branding peer reviewed journals – it doesn’t include npg journals, Nature-branded news letters, or many others. Source Nature web pages ( and

Five trends

  1. Publishing is growing exponentially – While the number of scientists is also growing exponentially, it is at a slower rate than papers. We are producing more papers per scientist every year. This is a profoundly important fact. Every ecologist knows the power and unsustainability of exponential growth. This also makes it abundantly clear that the publishers only deserve half the blame. Scientists have created a Red Queen situation in which we’re aggressively chasing opportunities to publish. Do we really need 1,000,000 (about +40%) more publications than 10 years ago! (Figure 1).
  2. Publishing is highly concentrated with monopoly profits and still concentrating – Five for profit publishers (Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor Francis and MDPI) publish over 50% of all publications. In economics this is called an oligopoly, where a small number of companies control the market. Worse, because scientists “have” to publish in top journals, publishers have even more power than the oligopoly nature suggests. One can measure the degree of concentration and power by the profit margins. The 20-30% profit margins are among the highest in all industries. Pharmaceuticals, computers, and tobacco are really the only other industries that comes close (10-25%), and most other industries fall at 10% or lower. From Figure 1, you can see that the for profit publishers, and specifically the big 2 traditional, Elsevier and Springer Nature, and the new OA for profits, especially MDPI but also Hindawi, Frontiers, BMJ etc, are still gaining share. Nearly everybody else (Wiley, society, university, PLOS) are holding share but not gaining meaningfully (note that not gaining ground in an exponentially growing market place is tantamount to losing share).
  3. Growth of Gold OA – the movement towards Open Access (I think it is more accurately called “pay to publish”) is clearly the future (Figure 2). Its share of papers published is on a trend to pass traditional subscription-funded publications soon. Green OA (author shares their paper on a website) has flatlined. Gold OA remains a mix of hybrid OA journals (author pays extra for OA on top of subscriber revenues) and pure 100% author pays OA journals (new OA publishers like MDPI, but also, increasingly, “flipping” previously subscription journals like Oikos and Ecography).
  4. Society journals are outsourcing – although it looks in Figure 1 like society journals are holding steady these are some very old, very big societies like the American Chemical Society and the American Geophysical Union and IEEE. The AAAS (publisher of Science) and the British Royal Society are the only societies still self-publishing with any relevance to ecology and evolution that I can think of. Nearly every other society journal has outsourced publishing to a company. In most cases in ecology this is Wiley (ESA, BES and Nordic Society). Evolution recently left Wiley to go to Oxford University Press and the American Naturalist Society remains with University of Chicago Press, but they are the notable exceptions that have remained free of the for profit world. This should probably be taken as a hint to people that think publishing is easy or cheap. It’s not. And there are economies of scale.
  5. Capture and brand extension – Such corporate words show the degree of corporatization we live in for publishing. Capture is my term that refers to the fact that big publishers increasingly make it very easy to slide from one of their journals to another by not requiring resubmission and often by sharing reviews between journals. It’s really just a less extreme version of gyms that make it hard to quit. Of course these transfers are never to another company. This is all about increasing their market share by making it easy for the author to stay with them. Brand extension (Figure 3) is the related phenomenon of having more and more journals that interlink. Nature is the extreme of this (Figure 3). The core journal Nature has extended to include Nature Communications, Nature Ecology and Evolution, Nature Sustainability, Nature Climate Change (and those are just the journals relevant to ecology – nature reports 34, and that doesn’t include the npg series or a bunch of others!). Brand extension and capture go hand-in-hand. And when a top brand extends, it can have devastating ripple effects. Notably, the creation of Nature Ecology and Evolution (NEE) coupled with the willingness of authors to stroke their egos by getting in a Nature journal is probably single-handedly responsible for the declining impact factors of most of the upper tier ecology journals such as Ecology Letters and Ecology. Note that one can now argue to pursue NEE based on impact factor (to the extent that is a credible argument), but initially that wasn’t even valid. As a new journal NEE had no then a low impact factor. It was literally the brand name that drew people in at first.
  6. Read and publish (aka transformative agreements) are the future – As I have discussed previously it is theoretically possible that if you could take all the money in academic publishing that was spent on “pay to read” (i.e. journal subscriptions) and instantly and globally flip it to author pays (aka Open Access), it should in theory work. The hard part is how a multiplayer society makes that transition. I think the answer is now clear. Libraries are signing “read and publish” (previously called transformative agreements) which are just what they sound like. The library pays a sum of money and its academics and students can read journals/papers from that publisher and they can publish without additional charge with that publisher (essentially no per paper Article Processing charge or APC). These agreements have taken off. Much of Europe now has these agreements with many publishers. And some good actor publishers have entered into these agreements with many, many institutions (e.g. Cambridge University Press even has one with my mid-level American university, University of Maine). Many bad actors are being much more calculating. They are starting off with big players (whole countries in Germany, large systems like the University of Calfornia system in the US) and negotiating very hard and including non-disclosure agreements so that nobody knows how much is being paid. And progress is slow with few institutions having them (e.g. Elsevier). So my low priority, literally poor university may not get one for a decade at the rate things are going.

Four thoughts

Here are a few of my main thoughts:

  1. Things are continuing to get worse and scientists are a lot to blame. We’re still growing publications exponentially. The industry is still consolidating even after 30+ years of consolidation. And it is consolidating into the hands of giant for-profit-companies. Academics are seriously complicit in this. China pays cash to scientists for publishing in big journals. Europe and North America it’s much more indirect, but clearly potent. I’m willing to bet the fraction of scientists who walk away from Nature Ecology and Evolution to go to a society journal is under 20-30%. Early career people might or might not have little choice, but that’s a lot of senior academics who arguably have a lot of choice making arguably bad choices.
  2. Open access has turned into a great way for companies to extract more money – This is more speculative. For sure in the early part of the transition, in hybrid journals, large APC charges (often $3000 and up) were charged on top of the subscription prices of the journals that were also going up. That’s a lot of extra cash! It is harder to tell as we transition to Read and Publish since those deals, at least with the large for profits, are all secret. But given the stories about how hard those negotiations are, I’d bet a lot of money that we are not in the world where a fixed amount of money flips from pay to read to pay to publish. Corporations are exploiting the change in rules to claw out even more earnings. Academics are not united or savvy enough to use this same change in rules to extract anything.
  3. Open access has been a disaster. Scientists never really wanted it. We have ended up here for two reasons. First, pipe dreaming academics who believed in the mirage of “Diamond OA” (nobody pays and it is free to publish). Guess what – publishing a paper costs money – $500-$2000 depending on how much it is subsidized by volunteer scientists. We don’t really want Bill Gates etc. to pay for diamond OA. And universities and especially libraries are already overextended. There is no free publishing. The second and, in my opinion most to blame, are the European science grant funders who banded together and came up with Plan S and other schemes to force their scientists to only publish OA. At least in Europe the funding agencies mostly held scientists harmless by paying, and because of the captive audience, publishers went to European countries first for Read and Publish agreements. So European scientists haven’t been hurt too badly. But North America has so far refused to go down the same path, leaving North American scientists without grants (a majority of them) with an ever shrinking pool of subscription-based journals to publish in. And scientists from less rich countries are hurt even worse. Let’s get honest. How long before every university in Africa is covered by a Read and Publish agreement from the for profit companies? Decades? Never? And the odds an African scientist can come up with $2000 in the meantime? Zero.
  4. Paying to publish creates bad incentives. The rapid growth of the for profit OAs (MDPI, Hindawi, Frontiers, etc) is maybe the biggest signal of this (notwithstanding there are some entirely reputable journals with those companies, but there are also a healthy dose of so-called predatory journals in there too). The correlation between the price you pay to publish OA and the prestige of the journal is another bad sign (second figure in this). Nature charges around $12,000 for OA. Given how bad acting for profit companies have been in this field, just think of all the incentives created by paying per paper published (publish everything because each paper brings in money, lower costs which basically boils down to lower the extent of the review process, prioritize appealing to authors over delivering quality science). Note the non OA-only publishers are clearly pushing in this direction too (there were a lot of discussion about increasing the number of papers published when I was an EiC at a Wiley journal).

The bottom line is for profit companies are eating our lunch with our active participation. They’re experts at extracting more and more money. And unfortunately academics are highly complicit. Nature Ecology and Evolution didn’t go from zero to highest rated journal in ecology in five years with no participation from academics.

What do we do going forward?

  1. Make peace with read and publish deals. The push for OA was a really bad, naïve idea. But it is a done deal now. The best thing we can do is push for more transparency around the Read and Publish deals and more speed for them to spread universally. And we need to make sure for profit companies offer reasonable read and publish deals in poorer countries.
  2. Societies have to start owning their power. For sure they need to take care of themselves and their own profitability. But they also have to be good actors and ultimately their primary function is to serve science and scientists. What could BES and ESA extract from Wiley if they bargained jointly? How about APC waivers (or better automatic Read and Publish deals) for scientists from the 75% poorest countries in the world? Or APC waivers for PhD students? Or what if they left for Oxford/Cambridge/Chicago? Sadly, I hear no conversation of this around societies. Indeed, I’m not in the innermost circles, but I hear disappointingly little receptiveness to acting for change. I think they’re too focused on their own survival. Plaudits to the Society for the Study of Evolution (and the American Naturalist Society) for setting a good example.
  3. Scientists have to wake up and change their behavior. We need to submit our papers, read papers, and volunteer our time to journals owned by good actors and not bad actors. This largely overlaps with for profit vs not for profit, but not entirely. And Wiley, with a large number of society journals, remains a conundrum in this classification. This is a classic altruism type of problem though, as it costs the individual to benefit science collectively. So it’s not easy to predict scientists will change soon. Just exactly how bad will the fever have to get before it breaks? In the meantime, if you have tenure, how much are you doing to change? Publish with society journals. Publish with good actor companies. Don’t let yourself be captured or fall into brand extensions. Don’t fall for the impact factor ruse (IF is a journal metric, not a paper metric – highly cited papers appear in low IF journals and the vast majority of papers in high IF journals are barely cited).
  4. Support disruptive efforts – don’t just stay away from some journals. Support ones that are trying to disrupt the publishing ecosystem for the benefit of academics. Public Library of Science (PLoS), PeerJ, the unfortunately defunct Axios, and specific journals like Evolutionary Ecology Research and Frontiers in Biogeography (UPDATE: as pointed out to me in the comments EER seems to be winding down and PeerJ got bought by for-profit Taylor & Francis – this shows how hard it is to break out in a new direction and why authors need to support them).
  5. We’ve got to stop publishing so much. Quite aside from chasing high-impact, bad-actor journals, we also have to stop Red-Queening ourselves into unsustainable publication rates. We’ve got to start embracing slow science, where we value quality over quantity. It’s bad for science as it becomes more and more impossible to keep up with the literature and the average quality of a paper necessarily goes down as quantity goes up (scientist time is constant). This frenetic need to publish is part of what gives power to bad actors. And this is hardly good for work-life balance and mental health either.

What do you think? Is it as bad as I describe? Do you have a different opinion about OA? How do you think we change things?

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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

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