Academic publishing and the commodification of knowledge

11 July 2023
Clara da Costa-Reidel

Three large academic publishers—Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society—brought a case against the pirate website Sci-Hub and its founder, 34-year-old computer scientist Alexandra Elbakyan, in 2020. They argued that the website, which hacks academic journals so users can access thousands of scientific articles for free, infringed on their copyright and should be blocked.

This wasn’t the first time that Elbakyan and Sci-Hub faced legal challenges. In 2017, a New York court awarded Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, US$15 million in damages and a permanent injunction for copyright infringement. Elbakyan, who lives in Russia, never paid the fine, and Sci-Hub continues to operate under various domain names and IP addresses after being blocked by many countries.

Central to the case is the idea that academic publishers have the right to own knowledge and distribute it at a price—a very high one at that. Academic publishing is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world; global revenues exceeded US$24 billion in 2017, somewhere between that of the film and music industries, according to the Guardian. Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported a profit margin of nearly 40 percent in 2010, greater than Amazon, Google and Apple in the same year.

Pirate sites like Sci-Hub are a direct threat to the profits of these companies. In response to accusations of theft and that Sci-Hub threatens the integrity of scientific research, Elbakyan hit back on Twitter, saying: “Open communication is a fundamental property of science, and it makes scientific progress possible. Paywalled access prevents this. That is a threat, and not Sci-Hub”.

Many of us who studied science at university will agree with Elbakyan’s sentiment. We were led to believe that academia is about the altruistic pursuit of knowledge and solving society’s problems. Most people would probably agree that publicly funded scientific research should be freely available to all.

But in reality, scientific knowledge is no exception to the profit-driven motives of capitalism, in which goods and services are commodified and sold in order to increase the wealth of a select few.

Academic publishing is a privatised sector in which a tiny number of large corporations control the distribution of knowledge for profit. A 2015 study led by Professor Vincent Larivière and published in the open-access journal PLOS One, found that just five companies controlled over 50 percent of the market. Elsevier owns 3,000 journals, which amounts to 18 percent of the world’s research.

Despite controlling access to most scientific research, publishing companies don’t commission or pay for any of it; taxpayers do. Most research is funded through government grants at publicly funded institutions. The Parliament of Australia 2022-23 Budget Review reported that in 2021-22, the Australian government invested A$11.8 billion in research and development. About 17 percent (approximately A$2 billion) of this went to research block grants for universities, and 8 percent went to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Researchers are paid by these grants to conduct scientific studies and produce papers, with their results for publication in academic journals. Peer review, the process by which other researchers in the field evaluate the quality of study before the paper is finally accepted for publication, is done for free by the academic community.

Publishers then charge researchers a processing fee to publish papers in their journals. Most of these journals are subscriber only—it costs US$30 to access a single paper from Science journal and a subscription to one of Elsevier’s journals can cost thousands of dollars.

Academic publishing is basically a huge rort in which a handful of corporations preside over a parasitic model in which publicly funded researchers do all the work, write it up and judge its merits, then pay to publish and access each other’s results. So, who is the real thief: Elbakyan or the publishers?

Proponents of capitalism argue that its competitive dynamic drives innovation. But this for-profit model of academic publishing does the opposite, creating significant financial barriers to accessing knowledge, thereby stifling scientific progress. In an opinion piece for the Bookseller, a British magazine about the publishing industry, researcher Raphael Tsavkko Garcia recalled: “I wrote the article, but I simply could not access it, nor [could] anyone from my university that might be interested in a similar topic. I spoke to a few colleagues who also could not access it, but rather had to pay large sums of money to read it and cite it—which is the academic’s main goal. So, I managed to publish, but I would ultimately perish because no one in my area seemed to be able to read it”.

The idea that research should be for scientific advancement and not for profit has pushed the academic community to request more open-access journals, in which published papers are available for free. However, publishers have worked their way around this by including open-access journals alongside their traditional subscriber ones while increasing the publishing fee. For instance, the fees for Lancet Neurology (Elsevier) and Nature Neuroscience (Springer Nature) are US$6,300 and US$11,690, respectively.

While open access makes scientific studies freely available to the public, it continues to entrench inequality in research because the exorbitant publishing costs exclude researchers from countries or institutions that aren’t well funded. This is not a challenge to the for-profit model of academic publishing; it is simply transferring the cost of research publications from the front to the back, and the public still foot the bill.

This set-up has a perverse effect on the quality of scientific research. The concentration of academic publishing means that these large companies get an outsized say over the kind of science that is published. Negative results and reproductions of previous studies are important contributions to science, but a survey on academic integrity by Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh in 2009 found that these kinds of studies are often rejected in favour of publishing only positive or novel results, which are more likely to attract purchasing fees.

The market model of higher education has exacerbated the problem. Far from existing purely for the pursuit of knowledge, universities are run like businesses and compete with one another to get a greater share of the market for students, grants and contracts with industry. University rankings are largely calculated based on quantitative metrics, so similar expectations are pushed on to staff. For example, academics are frequently required to publish a set number of papers in high-impact journals as a condition of employment or career progression. This encourages unscrupulous practices such as fabricating data and manipulating results to get a publishable outcome. The Fanelli survey found that 14 percent of the participating academics knew a scientist who had fabricated entire datasets, and 72 percent knew one who had indulged in other questionable practices.

The pay-to-publish model exacerbates this by incentivising journals to cut corners on quality control to increase the publication rate and therefore make more profits. American science journalist John Bohannon tested this system in 2013 by submitting a nonsensical scientific paper to more than 300 journals; 157 of them quickly accepted it with limited to no peer review.

The stranglehold academic publishers have over the production and distribution of knowledge stifles innovation and threatens the integrity of scientific research. It represents the opposite of scientific progress.

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