Academic Publishing In The Twenty-First Century – A Captive Market?

Price is a crazy and incalculable thing, while value is an intrinsic and indestructible thing.

– G.K. Chesterton

Unlike its popular counterpart, academic publishing has always supplied works for a small, nowadays largely professional, audience, which has occasioned it to develop in a different fashion to other sectors of its industry. Concentrating on the production of books and periodicals for a specialist audience, its market has always been narrow, yet, through evolving a marriage between scholarship and technology, it has become one of the most profitable areas of modern publishing. This brief survey seeks to show how academic publishing has overcome the industry-wide challenges posed by digital technology in the last twenty years to forge a successful commercial model that is the envy of many other sectors – though one not without its critics.

Academic publishing may be traced back to the late seventeenth century, when institutions such as Britain’s Royal  Society (founded in 1660) began to publish their scientific and philosophical transactions. For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the means and purposes of scholarly publishing changed little across the humanities and the sciences: amateur bodies and organisations using printed periodicals to broadcast the findings of their associated scholars to others interested in their field. But, owing to the professionalization and specialisation that had occurred in academia by the twentieth century, academic journals moved to the forefront of scholarship and started to represent a worthwhile commercial investment for publishing companies.


In the 1960s and 1970s, many mainstream firms acquired the rights to older scholarly journals and imprints, but it was only with the arrival of internet technology in the 1990s that these investments began to pay off significantly. By gradually shifting the means of academic periodicals’ distribution and consumption from their conventional print format to new online platforms, these companies created a highly-profitable product without sacrificing its traditionally high editorial and intellectual quality. Consequently, the business model that has developed for academic publishing is one predicated on typically low initial costs, since most published material is generated by academics for free; yet, once packaged and uploaded, firms can sell it for large returns to individuals and third-level institutions.



Nowadays, there are over 2,000 academic publishers worldwide, although the lion’s share of the market lies in the hands of five major international corporations: RELX, Taylor and Francis, SAGE, Springer Nature, and Wiley-Blackwell. Many of these companies developed from family firms founded in the nineteenth century, such as John Wiley and Sons (founded 1807), Springer-Verlag (1842), Taylor and Francis (1852), and Blackwell’s (1879). But, through various buy-outs and mergers in the last few decades, these publishers have now evolved into large, powerful conglomerates that dominate their sector and set the terms for scholarly publishing. While no one can doubt their success, they have earned criticism for having become an ‘oligopoly’, which is alleged to have created overpricing for consumers and a lack of competition in the market.


With most subsidised by their parent institutions, university presses have sought to keep pace with these large corporations, though only the larger ones can truly compete. Bringing the cachet of their historical reputations for excellence, those of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been arguably the most successful in the U.K. For example, Oxford University Press (founded in 1586) represents the largest university press in the world; publishing over 200 journals and around 6,000 new books each year, while employing more than 6,000 internationally. Also responsible for producing globally-recognised flagship publications, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (first published in 1888), OUP represents the sixth-largest publisher in the U.K. and the twenty-first-largest in the world. As OUP has demonstrated through its large-scale investment in digital enterprises, however, it is only through binding tradition with innovation that university presses can continue to survive, let alone operate profitably.


All of these organisations, whether corporate or collegiate, still publish a wealth of monographs, essay collections, proceedings, textbooks and reference works each year in traditional print format. But scholarly titles in fields across the humanities and sciences are usually unprofitable owing to their high costs of production versus their limited audience. As a result, the primary frontier for modern academic publishing in terms both of profit-making and technological advance has become the creation of digital content. Although some date back a century or more, most journals are now only available in electronic format, while many older archives and publications, such as The Times Digital Archive or the Dictionary of National Biography, have been digitised by academic publishers onto host databases.


Significantly, the way in which many of these companies have managed the transition from print to digital in the last two decades has led to accusations of overpricing and exploitation. Since the sector possesses a guaranteed readership among students and specialists, the manner in which these businesses monetise access to their databases and systems through the use of paywalls represents an important subject. As mentioned, since their commercial model is predicated on little outlay and high returns, this has allowed them to become the almost-exclusive corporate gatekeepers of modern scholarship. For instance, universities in the U.K. spend over £180 million annually on subscriptions to these companies – with 42% of this sum to four of the five companies mentioned above.


A decade ago, the so-called ‘serials crisis’ dominated academic-publishing concerns, as companies sought to find a way to offset the incongruous shortfall from an expanding market bearing diminishing revenues. Arising out of the increasing gulf between the rising costs of journal subscriptions versus the falling funds available to university libraries to pay for them, the issue brought to the fore the monopolistic attitude of certain parts of the scholarly publishing industry. But, while the inflationary nature of journal pricing can be blamed for the most part on these companies’ practices, it was also a result of the expanding, interdisciplinary nature of modern academia, which has led to greater specialism and a need for published literature to reflect this.


In response to the crisis, publishers have presented more cost-effective solutions for its third-level consumer institutions, while libraries have become more selective about the materials that they purchase. But one of its chief outcomes has been a greater investment in open-access resources by publishers, universities and third-party organisations, which has been hailed as a revolution in the way in which scholarly content is presented, distributed and consumed. Predicated on the free dissemination of content, this development has helped to place control of their material increasingly back in the hands of researchers and institutions, rather than exclusively in those of commercial entities – thus maximising research impact at a reduced cost. Through cooperation with organisations such as the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (founded in 2008), many academic publishers, such as Springer Nature and OUP, have chosen to support open-access platforms within the context of their wider commercial activities.


In the 350 years since academic publishing began, its means of dissemination and consumption has undergone a revolution, especially following the advent of internet technology in the 1990s. Better than many other parts of its industry, it adapted early to new developments and has largely kept pace with them, even if the swift rate of technological advance makes its future difficult to predict. For, having had a captive market for much of the last fifty years, the sector is witnessing an unprecedented liberation of materials and resources through open-access initiatives that has challenged its commercial dominance. So, when one examines the current state of academic publishing, one might suggest that it is at a crossroads. On the one hand, a number of major conglomerates continue to monopolise the industry to the detriment of competition and pricing; but, on the other, more individuals and institutions are taking greater control of their research outputs and making them available to others.


While technology has enhanced access to data, much content distributed online has proved at times to be inaccurate and untrustworthy. With more unsubstantiated material entering the public sphere than ever before, scholarly publishing therefore holds a key role in maintaining the authority and accessibility of factual information from reliable, peer-reviewed sources. This makes it vital for the publishing industry to interact with intellectual as well as monetary considerations in deciding how it makes knowledge available. In short, academic publishers must temper their need for profits with the requirements of researchers for the information that they control if they wish to unite and circulate learning for the many, rather than dividing and hoarding it for the few. If it is no longer trapped in a difficult marriage between free research and paid access, knowledge may yet find a way to be transmitted from the academy in a way that can simultaneously enrich scholarship and society – not only its corporate gatekeepers.


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