The public subsidy of scientific publishing monopolies

There is an increasing recognition that the world of academic science production is going off track.  Richard Horton, the editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, wrote earlier this year:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.

The issue is not a new one, and one often cited reference claims that statistical and methodological biases result in a daunting fact: “most published research findings are false”. For those that are true, it is still an open question to know how many are useful. 

The consequences of science going wrong, are serious. For example, in biomedical science, George Poste noted the discrepancy between

more than 1500000 papers documenting thousands of claimed biomarkers, but fewer than 100 have been validated for routine clinical practice.

Very often the response to these concerns are efforts to make science more reproducible, and reduce biases. These are worthy, useful, and correct efforts. They are also largely downstream of root causes and deeper factors. The larger problem is an institutional and structural one related to how we organize, produce and reward science. The issue is multifaceted, and here I want to point out a single one of these structural factors: the business of academic publishing.

Most scientific research in academic institutions is funded by public money, yet universities subscribe to academic publishers to be able to download or read the reports of research. The public is thus compelled not only to subsidise research, but also the business around it. I submitted Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests to some of the major UK universities to find how much they spend paying to academic publishers in 2014. Oxford, Imperial College London, and Cambridge’s four top expenses are presented below

foi

Elsevier for example, gets about a million pound per year per University. And that’s three UK universities alone. Other FOI requests, revealed that KCL and UCL spend each, per year, more than 3.3 million pounds in academic publishers. Multiply that by all major European universities and you get a sense of how much money the European public is paying to publishers for them to supply universities with what the public already paid to produce.

The business is a profitable one – for a wealthy few. Researchers at the University of Montreal called it “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers“. As part of their larger work, they collected data on the profit trends of Elsevier and the author’s figure is reproduced here.

journal.pone.0127502.g007

Operating profits, and profits margins for: (A) Reed-Elsevier as a whole; (B) its Scientific, Technical & Medical division.

The authors note that these profit margins put academic publishers

on a comparable level with Pfizer (42%), the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (29%) and far above Hyundai Motors (10%), which comprise the most profitable drug, bank and auto companies [..].

Part of the reason for these margins is that the producers (scientists) of the product (scientific knowledge) deliver their product to the publishers for free, only for it to be sold back to the wider community who cannot fight the oligopoly prices. In fact in our system of knowledge production and dissemination, the producers compete to have their publicly funded product accepted by the publishers, and we’ve made their careers depend on it.

There are many other structural factors that affect the way modern science production works. The public subsidy of private business based on mass production of “studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, […] pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance” is only one of such dynamics. Improving the way modern science is made needs to go beyond calls for reproducibility and transparency. It needs us to reorganize the way science is produced, evaluated, distributed, and funded. There is much to be changed.


The owner of this blog and writer of these words works at the frontier of academic science and translational medicine, for the British NHS and is has an honorary affiliation with Kings College London.

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2 thoughts on “The public subsidy of scientific publishing monopolies

  1. Dear Filipe, very interesting and useful post! I’m currently teaching a course on the Geopolitics of Knowledge, and I’m gathering material from different sources. I was struck by the figures shown in the table: 1 ml pound for one institution (i.e. Oxford) to buy just Elsevier stuff? Here you can find official figures released by the French Minister of Education for all French institutions (http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2014/11/10/france-prefere-payer-deux-fois-les-articles-chercheurs-255964), and they say they spend 30 ml of euros for one year for ALL institutions…
    I’m aware there are differences between packs, number institutions in the two countries,
    etc. but I still find that the differences are too big…
    What do you think?

    • Hi thank you for your reply,

      I think that’s a good point. I have a letter from oxford saying they spent £990774.50 in 2014 just for Elsevier. On the other hand, the LSE did not reach a quarter of a million (still a lot) for that same publisher. I guess it will really depend on the institution and their needs. I don’t know the details of the terms of the contracts. But that’s something you may be able to know more about and then tell me.

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