The sustainability argument or… How academic journals economic models never really last

The starting point for this post is an article from Scholarly Kitchen in which, once again, the sustainability of Diamond journals and here the Subscribe to Open model, is questioned. This leads the author, Rick Anderson, to define sustainability:

“It’s a concept that gets invoked in many different contexts to mean a range of different things, but in this context its meaning is both basic and simple: a publisher’s business model is sustainable if it’s able to be sustained over time. […] What determines sustainability? For an ongoing and open-ended project like publishing, the baseline determinant of sustainability is simple: recurring, reliable revenue.”

This definition is interesting, though it stands on a muddy ground: how do we define “recurring reliable revenue”? What is the timeframe to judge reliability? My post will argue that there is no such thing as a stable business model, at least for a long time. Moreover, if Anderson is right to question the S20 future, the same questions should be asked to much-lightly considered “stable models”, starting with subscriptions.

Our present is not the continuation of the past: the short history of subscriptions

Over the three and a half centuries of scientific publication in journals, the economic relations between publishers of scientific outputs and their readers were far from stable. It was probably not until after the Second World War that the main relationships became those between publishers and academic libraries, on a national or international scale, not as part of a gift or exchange economy, but rather as a commodity.

As the number and budget of libraries increased and the number of published journals grew fast, a short golden age of subscriptions for journal producers, and notably commercial ones, began1. But by the 1970s, as budgets stagnated, harsh competition for libraries money was the first signal of what was later referred to as the serial crisis. This decades-long relationship, based on the sale of subscriptions and paper issues for each journal, has been profoundly transformed by the digitalization of journals.

In the late 1990s, three major events took place in the contractual relationship between libraries and scientific publishers. Firstly, in a relatively short period of time after the inception of the World Wide Web, the largest publishers put online not only their entire contemporary catalogue, but also part of their archival material. Secondly, publishers have been offering access to packages or bundles, not on a title-by-title basis, but to a long list or even all of their journals. Thirdly, to make this offer attractive, they favoured the emergence of library consortia which, by adding their singular needs, could constitute clients interested in this new plethoric offer. The combination of these three events gave rise to a new form of standard economic agreement, the big deal2.

As a result, the subscription business model has been changed from an audience-centered model – libraries purchase what readers want, title by title – to a model centered on the size of the publisher – libraries buy the most extensive offerings, leading to a much stronger oligopolization through buyouts of publishers and change of publishers for scholarly societies, very visible twenty years later.

Percentage of papers published by the five major publishers, by discipline in the Natural and Medical Sciences, 1973–2013.3

For most publishers – including self-publishing learned societies – subscription has only been profitable for a short time and is not anymore. It is not sustainable, since it now implies the disappearance of their autonomy or at least dependence on increasingly powerful players, likely to act unilaterally on their revenues. And even for the largest publishers, the threat of non-renewal of Big Deals is growing stronger from 2010 onwards, whether through the sudden drop in financial resources (Greece) or through the choice to no longer pay for a service that does not meet the needs of libraries (United States) or open access demands (Germany, Sweden). It is in this context that Elsevier has started to brand itslef as a data company, while new publishers are trying to make a new model last, based on Article Processing Charges.

The future will not be similar to nowdays: charging authors to the breakdown point

Charging authors is not a recent business model, there have been many examples of vanity publishing, targeted towards academia or outside of it4. In the US, from the 1930s on , an alternative funding model had already thrived, as subscription revenues were considered too low. It targeted authors and their funders, was based on per-page charges, first in Physics, then in other STM disciplines.5 But it was with electronification that the idea of paying a lump sum for authors – as opposed to a multitude of varying services (colour charges, page charges, cover charges…) emerged, soon to be known as Article Processing Charges (APC). Some new publishers have entirely adopted this new model, sooner or later being bought by legacy Big Publishers, like BMC by Springer or Hindawi by Wiley. But other ones have quickly become themselves global Big Publishers.

Retrospective statistics of the leading academic publishers in 20216

On selected Clarivate sources7, MDPI and Frontiers are now in the top 6 in volume published while added, they were making less than a fifth of ACS, Sage or OUP a decade ago! From the point of view of these new big players, APCs are so sustainable that they create journals almost every week. For example, in 2021 MDPI launched 84 new journals and only acquired two existing titles. As Dan Brockington has shown in his comprehensive analysis of MDPI data, this growth also comes from the lowering of rejection rates:

“Now, some 45% of the MDPI journals I analysed, have rejection rates of below 40% (Table 2). Papers in these journals account for nearly 38% of revenues from publication fees (Table 3). Conversely, the journals with rejection rates of over 50% account for just over 25% of revenues. Measures of esteem, such as listing in the Web of Science, did not seem to make a difference to rejection rates. Average rejection rate for WoS listed journals was 42.7%, and for unlisted journals 41.6%.”8

The incentive for publishers to accept a manuscript in the APC model has been discussed for a decade, and its link to the growth of vanity presses now dubbed “predatory publishers” is well established. Above and beyond what is often portrayed as a potential threat to the whole scholarly communication system, the APC business model is not sustainable from the authors and research organizations’ point of view. A large literature has constantly shown the rise of APC prices through time, would it be for open access journals or for those relying on the hybrid model. Whether they would name it “prestige prices” or “market power”, researchers describe an ever-growing number of APC articles and a rise in individual prices.9

Proponents of market regulation will argue that each author will adjust his or her willingness-to-pay to the audience and the supposed quality of the journal, but instead we see the exclusion of authors for lack of funds or the sale of places in the byline to pay APCs. And of course, the quasi-absence of success for such a business model in underfunded disciplines, like most of HSS ones.

Sustainable for whom? The durability of Diamond journals

The two most visible business models for disseminating journal content are therefore both not only at the mercy of default by their funders, but are unsustainable for both readers and authors and their respective institutions. The fact that they constitute today’s largest expenditure items in scholarly communication should not be taken as evidence of sustainability through the capture of recurrent reliable revenue. In research worlds subject to severe budgetary constraints and increasing visibility of expenditure lines, they are in fact the most threatened in their foundation.

That being said, what are the alternatives? They are well known, and have been running in some corners of the global journal market for decades without any structural sustainability problems, despite being underfunded. Their landscape has been described in a comprehensive study, showing small-scale non-profit community-owned arhcipelagoes10. Far from APC-based megajournals and publishers with huge portfolios, this ecosystem is sustained by learned societies, universities, research organizations, some research funders, but also large-scale technical infrastructures, the most obvious being PKP’s Open Journal Systems.

While it is certain that more funding and more support from different institutions is needed11, thousands of journals – and dozen of dissemination platforms – have shown their reliability as they passed the test of time.

Yet, most don’t pass the “Anderson sustainability test” as they don’t rely on “revenue” but rather support and funding as they have not been comodified. Moreover, the support come from the exact same sources that pay, in a way or another, the “unsustainable publishing models” described above. So, they are obviously sustainable for authors and for readers, but also for these supporting institutions. Though they don’t have a unified business model12 -Subscribe to Open being the latest & adequate to already commidified journals, they seem to thrive, each of them at their low-scale, but with an agregated population still larger than APC journals. After almost three decades of existence, resisting to several “serial crises”, haven’t they earn the right not to be questionned on their sutainibility, but rather considered as one of the most secure ways to build a sustanaible scholarly communication system, allied with institutional archives?



Cite this blog post
Didier Torny (2022, November 30). The sustainability argument or… How academic journals economic models never really last. The political economy of academic publications. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sy3h

  1. Fyfe, Aileen. “From philanthropy to business: the economics of Royal Society journal publishing in the twentieth century.” Notes and Records (2022). Aileen Fyfe, Noah Moxham, Julie McDougall-Waters, and Camilla Mørk Røstvik , A History of Scientific Journals Publishing at the Royal Society, 1665-2015, UCL Press, 2022, chapter 14 []
  2. Frazier, Kenneth. “What’s the big deal?” The serials librarian 48.1-2 (2005): 49-59. []
  3. Larivière V, Haustein S, Mongeon P (2015) The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127502. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127502 []
  4. see for a detailed history on books, Timothy Laquintano, The Legacy of the Vanity Press and Digital Transitions, Volume 16, Issue 1, Summer 2013, https://doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0016.104 []
  5. On the American Chemical Society example, see Noel, M. (2020). Back to disciplines: exploring the stability of publication regimes in chemistry: the case of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (1879–2010). Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7(1), 1-13; on the APS/AIP example, see Scheiding, T. (2009). Paying for knowledge one page at a time: The author fee in physics in twentieth-century America. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 39(2), 219-247. []
  6. from Understanding the increasing market share of the academic publisher “Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute”Dan Brockington in the publication output of Central and Eastern European countries: a case study of Hungary []
  7. That is much more restricted than Crossref, so more favourable to legacy publishers []
  8. Dan Brockington,MDPI Journals: 2015 -2021, 10 November 2022, https://danbrockington.com/2022/11/10/mdpi-journals-2015-2021/ []
  9. see for example, Budzinski, O., Grebel, T., Wolling, J. et al. Drivers of article processing charges in open access. Scientometrics 124, 2185–2206 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-020-03578-3 []
  10. Bosman, Jeroen, Jan Erik Frantsvåg, Bianca Kramer, Pierre-Carl Langlais, and Vanessa Proudman. “The OA diamond journals study. Part 1: Findings.” (2021) 10.5281/zenodo.4558704 []
  11. see recommandations from the mentioned study, Becerril, Arianna, Lars Bjørnshauge, Jeroen Bosman, Jan Erik Frantsvåg, Bianca Kramer, Pierre-Carl Langlais, Pierre Mounier, Vanessa Proudman, Claire Redhead, and Didier Torny. “The OA Diamond Journals Study. Part 2: Recommendations.” (2021), https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4562790 []
  12. This diversity should be studied, as we will do it in the current European-funded Diamas project []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search