Who benefits from for-profit academic publishing?

If you’ve never considered how academic publishing works, start here. If you’re interested in learning more about the forces at work, a group of scholars, librarians, and publishing experts have written a white paper detailing where the money in publishing goes, especially in open-access publishing. We can’t for a minute forget that traditional publishers’ primary aim is to sell content freely provided by scholars for a profit. At the moment, publishers make money selling journal subscriptions to libraries while at the same time charging fees for making select content publicly available. Because widespread open access would threaten their ability to sell subscriptions, the fees charged for open access at for-profit journals do not reflect only the work needed to publish an OA article, but also the anticipated loss involved in not keeping that article behind the paywall. But while most content remains behind the paywall, libraries cannot stop paying for those subscriptions. Publishers collect money for the subscriptions, while also collecting gold-OA fees. Universities are stuck paying both.

Publishing needn’t work this way; there are journals owned and controlled by non-profit groups, and more content should be. When the European Society for Cognitive Psychology recently decided to break with its publisher, we were motivated by the realization that we could not do much to influence our journal’s policies, because we didn’t own and control the journal’s title. We decided to remedy this by launching a new journal adhering to fair OA principles. A mass shift away from traditional publishing to a fair OA model would save universities an enormous sum without reducing the quality of scholarship at all.

Though the biggest traditional publishers talk about embracing the principles of OA, they have little motivation to work on an OA journal if they do not own it. When ESCoP invited publishers to help us launch our new OA journal, we were greeted enthusiastically until we made clear that ESCoP would retain ownership of the journal. Only one of the top-five publishers was interested in working on a society-owned open access journal, and only if ESCoP would financially contribute a substantial amount to the production costs. Fortunately we also received competitive bids from publishers specializing in online OA publishing. None of these publishers requested that ESCoP pay money to mitigate their risks. They provided straightforward estimates of what costs they incurred from taking on the work of publishing our journal, along with a plan for per-article fees to meet those costs. We ultimately chose Ubiquity Press from these options (more about that next week).

The big publishers all have official positions about open access, describing how they want to “empower” scholars or help us “innovate”. But their exorbitant gold OA fees cannot be justified by any of these principles. I suspect we are never going to get around the fact that the traditional publishers are only committed to offering OA if they can do so while protecting their lucrative subscription model.