So when does academic publishing get disrupted?

Anyone who has been following the travails of the publishing industry knows that the business is in the throes of widespread disruption, thanks to the rise of the web and digital publishing, and what Om has called the “democracy of distribution.” But as author and academic George Monbiot points out in a recent piece in The Guardian, there is one large publishing market that not only remains undisrupted but continues to produce huge returns for those who control it: the publishing of academic journals. Why has this market been able to resist the tide of change sweeping through the rest of the industry, and what will it take to finally disrupt it?

As Monbiot notes, while newspapers like the New York Times (s nyt) and Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times (s nws) have erected paywalls that are aimed at charging readers pennies per copy for their digital content, reading a single article in an academic journal published by a company such as Reed-Elsevier (s ruk) or Wiley (s jwa) can cost you as much as $40. And it’s not just the end reader who pays: the libraries that subscribe to these journals and magazines have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for access to each title — in some cases as much as $20,000 for a single journal.

Charging for access to free content

But the enormous prices charged for the content in these journals (which produce profit margins of more than 35 percent for the three major publishers who control the industry, according to Monbiot) aren’t the only thing about the journal business that draws fire from critics. One of the biggest issues is that the content in these publications is provided to these journals for free, and in many cases, the research that is being produced is publicly funded via government grants. So private corporations are raking in huge sums for access to research they get for nothing — and even the peer-editing of the articles in most journals is done for free by other researchers. Says Monbiot:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Some have taken matters into their own hands rather than wait for the academic-publishing business to be disrupted. Aaron Swartz, an early staffer at the link-sharing community Reddit and a Harvard Fellow at the Center for Ethics, was recently charged with downloading thousands of academic articles from the JSTOR archive by hacking into the Harvard computer network. According to the indictment, the attorney general believed that Swartz was planning to upload the documents to file-sharing networks — and within a few days someone did exactly that with more than 18,000 documents from JSTOR. The uploader said he was not affiliated with Swartz, but shared his desire to see this research provided to everyone free of charge, saying:

Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers. And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy…. As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models.

Why has academic publishing resisted disruption?

Any discussion of the transformation of the publishing business — whether it’s the publishing of books, newspapers or magazines — inevitably focuses on a number of factors. One is the explosion of new sources of content, whether it’s Twitter’s status as a distributed news network or the self-publishing phenomenon that has seen a growing number of authors bypass the traditional book-publishing business. And another factor is the decline in the cost of producing content that the web and other digital tools (such as Amazon’s Kindle (s amzn) platform) have created. As I outlined in a recent report for GigaOM Pro (sub required), these factors apply to virtually any publishing business.

So why has academic publishing been able to resist these changes? That has a lot to do with the structure of the market. Concentrated ownership is one aspect of it — since, as Monbiot notes, three companies control almost half the market for these journals. But the newspaper and book-publishing markets are fairly concentrated as well, and yet they are being disrupted. The biggest difference in the academic world is that there is a large player in between the creators of the content (i.e, researchers) and the audience for that content (other academics) that tends to distort the economics of the business, and that is the universities and institutions that control access.

There are ongoing attempts by some academics to promote “open access” to research, an effort that sociologist and Microsoft (s msft) researcher Danah Boyd has promoted — urging academics to boycott “locked down” journals that do not provide access except through expensive subscriptions paid for by university tuition fees. As Boyd and others note, the restrictions on such research ultimately mean that important scientific and academic insights are only available to a tiny number of readers. Says Boyd:

Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine.

Academic institutions reinforce the existing structure

Academics who have tried to open up their research or bypass the journal industry say they often run into resistance from a number of sources. Among other things, appearing in a specific journal or publication is a key criteria for advancement at most universities, which means publishing in open-access formats could be a career-limiting move for an academic. Many publish their papers on their own websites, but most also go through the usual journal process as well, which reinforces the existing system. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.

Some markets within the academic-research industry are better at providing access to research outside an expensive publication: the social sciences, for example, have the SSRN (Social Science Research Network), which provides free access to hundreds of papers that are written every year on a variety of topics. And there are also some open services that allow researchers to contribute papers, such as the network and the Public Library of Science. Some documents also make their way onto file-sharing networks the way the JSTOR papers did, but the demand is so small that this happens infrequently.

As Monbiot notes in his column, there are some agencies such as the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. that require researchers to provide their research for free if they get public funding, but these requirements carry little weight when the entire structure of the academic industry is focused on which papers appear in which specific printed journals — all of which are controlled by several major players. Until either one or both of those factors change, academic publishing will continue to be the market that digital disruption forgot.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marya and Marcus Hansson and Jeremy Mates