University of California’s break with the biggest academic publisher could shake up scholarly publishing for good

The University of California recently made international headlines when it canceled its subscription with scientific journal publisher Elsevier. The twittersphere lit up. And Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, saw its stock drop 7 percent in response to the announcement.

A library canceling a subscription seems like a simple, everyday business decision, so what’s the big deal?

It was not just the clash-of-the-titans drama between the University of California, whose scholars produce nearly 10 percent of the nation’s research publications, and Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of academic research.

The story made headlines because it’s symptomatic of the way in which the internet has failed to deliver on the promise to make knowledge easily accessible and shareable by anyone, anywhere in the world. The UC-Elsevier showdown was the latest in a succession of cracks in what is widely considered to be a failing system for sharing academic research. As the head of the research library at UC Davis, I see this development as a harbinger of a tectonic shift in how universities and their faculty share research, build reputations and preserve knowledge in the digital age.

Accessing a journal no longer means going to a periodicals room. Newton W. Elwell/Boston Public Library/Flickr, CC BY

Moving from stacks to screens

Here’s how things traditionally worked.

Universities have always subscribed to scientific journals so their researchers can study and build on the work that came before, and won’t needlessly duplicate research they never knew about. In the print age, university library shelves were lined with journals, available for any researcher or – in the case of public universities like the University of California – any member of the public to peruse and learn from.

Now, for almost all journals, and a growing number of books, libraries sign contracts to license access to digital versions. Since academic publishers moved their journals online, it has become rare for libraries to subscribe to printed journals, and researchers have adapted to the convenience of accessing journal articles on the internet.

Under the new business model of licensing access to journals online rather than distributing them in print, for-profit publishers often lock libraries into bundled subscriptions that wrap the majority of a publisher’s portfolio of journals – almost 3,000 in Elsevier’s case – into a single, multi-million dollar package. Rather than storing back issues on shelves, libraries can lose permanent access to journals when a contract expires. And members of the public can no longer read the library’s copy of a journal because the licenses are limited to members of the university. Now the public must buy online copies of academic articles for an average of US$35 to $40 a pop.

The shift to digital has been good for researchers in many ways. It is far more convenient to search for articles online, and easier to access and download a copy – provided you work for an institution with a paid subscription. Modern software makes organizing and annotating them simpler, too. With all of these benefits, no one would advocate for going back to the old days of print journals.

But this online system did not improve the picture overall. Despite digital copies of articles costing nothing to duplicate and the cost of producing an article online being lower than in the past, the cost to libraries of licensing access to them has continued to experience hyperinflation. No library can afford to license all of the journals that its faculty and students want access to, and many researchers around the world are shut out completely. Compounding the problem, consolidation in the scholarly publishing market has reduced competition significantly, causing even more price inflexibility.

Excessive profits?

Academic publishers certainly bear costs. They pay for professional editors and programmers, they manage the peer review process, they market their journals and so on. However, their revenues far exceed these costs and are among the highest of any companies in the world. Elsevier’s profit margin is reported to be nearly 40 percent far higher than even Apple at around 23 percent.

Where social media platforms like Facebook profit from – and indeed, would not exist without – the content generated by users, the parallel is true for academic journals. Companies like Elsevier receive articles from university faculty and other researchers for free, summarizing research that was often publicly funded by government grants. Then other faculty and researchers serve on their editorial boards and peer-review those articles for free or a nominal fee. Finally the company publishes them in journals available only behind a paywall.