“Big 5” academic publishers taking big profits, says study

Brock's Interim University Librarian Barbara McDonald: "The system of scholarly publishing is broken."

Brock’s Interim University Librarian Barbara McDonald: “The system of scholarly publishing is broken.”

As university libraries are being crippled by soaring subscription rates for journals, a University of Montreal study says five large academic publishers are taking fat profit margins as they gain more control of publishing academic papers.

In a CBC News report, the study’s authors say the “big 5” now publish 53 per cent of all scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences, up from just 20 per cent in 1973.

The grip is even more evident in social sciences, where the group publishes 70 per cent of all papers, according to the article “Academic publishers reap huge profits as libraries go broke” —posted on the CBC News website June 15.

“The big problem is that libraries or institutions that produce knowledge don’t have the budget anymore to pay for [access to] what they produce,” the study’s lead author, Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal’s School of Library and Information Science, tells the CBC.

The study, The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era was published in PLOS ONE June 10.

The study finds that research publishers have typical profit margins of nearly 40 per cent as other book and magazine publishers “struggle to stay afloat.”

The new report underscores a crisis that Brock University’s Interim University Librarian Barbara McDonald raised several months ago, when it was announced that Brock had become the latest university to cancel some of its journal subscriptions because of spiralling costs.

“The system of scholarly publishing is broken,” said McDonald, “and we as a community need to work together to find solutions.

“As part of their jobs, professors do research, contribute articles to journals, peer review papers by other academics, volunteer on journal editorial boards… and then libraries buy back the results of that ‘free’ labour at exorbitant prices. Faculty, librarians, students, research funders and publishers are all in this ecosystem together.”

Brock has had to cancel a package of 1,363 journals from Wiley-Blackwell effective December 31, 2014. “The cumulative impact of annual price increases from scholarly publishers, coupled with the higher American dollar, make it impossible for the Library to maintain this subscription,” says The James A Gibson webpage.

The Canada government’s new open access policy, The Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications, will require that researchers funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) make the results of their research freely available online within 12 months of publication.

Read more stories in: News