How Publishing Companies Monopolized and Became the Villains in the Scientific Research

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

Academic research and publication have always been revered as one of humankind’s most prestigious and noble occupations. Every day, scientists work relentlessly to contribute to the grand world of research, hoping that their studies will help advance others’ works and the public’s collective wisdom. However, this seemingly organic and symbiotic relationship between researchers and readers face a monumental barricade – multi-billion publishing giants – where both sides are obliged to undertake exorbitant sums of money to publish and gain access to scientific articles. How did this nonsensical model emerge in the scientific world? And why is it still a thing? 

The History of Commercial Publishing: Who Controls the Game? 

According to The Guardian, this ludicrous business chain started with Robert Maxwell, a publishing tycoon who realized the potential in monetizing scientific articles during the 20th-century scientific boom. He founded Pergamon Press (now owned by Elsevier, its previous competitor) in 1948, and by 1965, the publishing house had ownership of 150 journals. Maxwell left behind an enormous legacy in the scientific publishing world, where the journal in which a scientist submits their paper adopted new rigor regarding their professional standing. The publishing business continued to grow in subsequent years, with its role becoming increasingly prominent in the 21st century. 

Today, the industry is primarily dominated by five publishing giants: Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Sage, which reportedly publish half of the world’s scientific papers. However, the publishing playground’s leader is undoubtedly Elsevier, the Netherlands-based company that boasts prestigious journals such as Cell, Current Biology, and The Lancet. While many of us often don’t assume that these publishing companies make big bucks, this presumption is far from reality. In 2010, Elsevier had reported a profit of £724m, with a profit margin (36%) higher than the typical conglomerates of Apple, Google, or Amazon.

The Vicious Business Cycle of Scientific Publishing and How Almost Everyone Suffers

How did these publishing oligopolies manage to exploit a presumably low-cost industry without the responsibility of producing actual content? Surely, someone in this story is getting the short end of the stick. Scientific research is under attack, where scientists are stuck in the business cycle controlled by publishing companies. Since publication in well-known journals provides scientists with reputation and prestige, submitting their works to these hotshot journals might enlarge the chance of being cited. As the publication and citation counts are considered measurements of success and validation, researchers worship and succumb to the journal gods. While scientists are mainly funded by the government and submit their works to the journals for FREE, their research articles are resold to government-funded universities and institutions where the scientists must pay to gain access to their studies. Imagine spending $30 to access the paper that you had worked on for years and submitted for free—irony at its lowest.

This less-than-intuitive relationship might baffle many because the power dynamics between publishing companies and scientists are unequal. These companies have exerted their commercial mindset onto the scientific community. Scientists feel obliged and pressured to accommodate their studies to what journals consider topical and attention-grabbing, prizing new and spectacular results. This inherent conflict unquestionably leads to grave implications on scientific progress, where publication bias distorts science’s genuine advancement. Furthermore, costly fees substantially limit the contribution of under-funded institutions and researchers. For instance, according to Vox, a Ph.D. candidate in Iran would have to spend $1000 weekly to read papers required for his study despite not being able to finance these supplementary costs. The restricted access can significantly undermine the growth of science, as it “hinders the research they can do and slows down the progress of humanity.”

However, most of the time, the citizens cannot have their hands on these resources that they mostly financed without paying, sharply undercutting scientists’ crusade of knowledge sharing.

Universities are also key players in this never-ending battle, paying a hefty price for yearly journal subscription bundles. The University of Virginia in 2018 reported paying Springer Nature $672,000 for nearly 4000 journals, of which 1400 has never been accessed. Wealthy institutions also suffer from the ridiculously high prices, as Harvard University in 2012 criticized their $3.5 million yearly subscriptions as “untenable” or unjustified. The University of Amsterdam has not escaped this cycle, where they reported spending €4.42 million on scientific journals, with most of them belonging to Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley/Blackwell.

The general public also faces an unfair disadvantage due to this bizarre system. The citizens are the taxpayers whose contributions allow the government to provide grants to researchers (in the US, this number can go up to $140 billion annually). However, most of the time, the citizens cannot have their hands on these resources that they mostly financed without paying, sharply undercutting scientists’ crusade of knowledge sharing.  

Tom Reller, the former vice president of corporate relations at Elsevier, attempted to sugar-coat the dubious business scheme: “14 million scientists entrust Elsevier to publish their results, and 800,000 scientists donate their time to help them with editing and peer-review.” This measurement of success based on the number of publications and entrusted scientists is, to no small extent, skewed. Placing professional and ethical standards under the commercial and number-centric lens provides leeway for the indefensible to make indefensible excuses. Ultimately, researchers are not always presented with many rigorous alternatives and must stay in the framework of mainstream options.

New Scientific Heroes? 

While these practices continue to prevail in today’s society, there have been multiple attempts to curtail and overrule commercial publication’s detriments on scientific advancement and knowledge acquisition. The University of California dropped its $11 million Elsevier subscription in 2019, with board members stating how “scientific knowledge [should not be] locked up behind paywalls” and exponential expenses. Moreover, not-so-legal alternatives such as Sci-Hub have also manoeuvred around these restrictions and offered access to research papers to all users without extra fees. However, the most critical change is stemmed from the Open Access movement, where more articles will be readily available for all readers. While scientists debate over its feasibility and ramifications, a team of European scientific backers, including France, Britain, and the EU, have proposed an initiative requiring all papers published under their journal to be openly accessible.

The Fight Goes On…

As these issues are still deliberated by both the publishing industry and scientists worldwide, we are unsure how future developments will occur. But there is one definite thing that comes out of this chaos: A scientific revolution is coming, where scientists have teamed up to challenge the system and promote freedom of knowledge. While we don’t know who will prevail, the shadowed power and influence publishing companies have over the scientific community still need to be stripped away. It is time to break the silence and break the chain. It is time to escape the cycle. The battle is on.

This article is part of the Medium Magazine series “The Price of Knowledge” where we dive into the debate surrounding modern scientific research, publication and freedom of knowledge via access to research.


Cover: Mika Baumeister

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