Future Tense

Trump Might Do Something Genuinely Good for Science

It has to do with the outrageous academic publishing market.

Library shelves crowded with rows and rows of books.
Some things were easier when libraries were mostly books. Alfons Morales/Unsplash

This article was excerpted and adapted from a piece that originally ran in Issues in Science and Technology.

In December, in the midst of the political wrangling associated with President Trump’s impeachment, a news report gave me hope. According to it, Trump’s administration was working on an executive order that would require publishers to grant immediate free access to all journal articles that result from federally funded research. Predictably, the publication industry rapidly issued a scathing critique of the idea, signed by 140 publishers and academic societies. Although the Trump administration is widely viewed to be anti-science, it would be a mistake to interpret the presence of academic societies on this letter as representing the interests of science writ large. Within two days of the industry letter, a coalition representing 210 academic and research libraries wrote an open letter to the White House supporting changing federal policy in exactly the way the executive order is rumored to do. Indeed, there have long been calls for opening access to research results. This is an area where U.S. lags behind Europe in policy and Latin America in development of open access journals and databases.

In an era when most presidential actions are viewed primarily through partisan lenses, it is worth taking a step back and considering why this rumored proposal elicited a polarized response, but one that did not fall along partisan lines. A lot of money is at stake. But so too are the essences of scientific communication and scientific self-governance.

The academic publication industry is unbelievably lucrative for top publishers, who profit by charging huge fees for access to prestigious journals, undermining user access to research. A handful of large corporate publishers own the “must publish” outlets for scientists. For example, the RELX Group—the corporate owner of the publisher Elsevier, the Scopus database, the prestigious journals Cell and the Lancet, and the publication database ScienceDirect, among other products—boasts in its 2018 annual report that its Scientific, Technical & Medical division organized “the review, editing and dissemination of 18% of the world’s scientific articles.” According to its numbers, the group received a whopping 1.8 million article submissions to 2,500 journals, overseen by 20,000 editors and countless peer-reviewers, and in the process reaped $3.3 billion in revenue. Subscriptions constituted 74 percent of that revenue. To achieve those revenues, the group continues to expand its offerings: Elsevier published 60 percent more articles in 2018 than a decade prior.

That’s possible because the market that is so dysfunctional that economists may not have terms adequate to describe it. Universities employ the content providers—academic researchers—who conduct the research that is paid for by governments and other third-party sponsors. Academics then write the articles, are incentivized to publish them in journals owned by a small number of companies, give them to those journals for free, vet the content for others in the process of peer review—for free—and serve on editorial boards organizing the review process—usually for free. They provide a cost-free labor force for those aspects of scientific publishing that require the greatest expertise and effort. Libraries in turn have little choice but to pay whatever subscription fees the publishers demand to secure access to the resulting content.

Typically, one or a small handful of corporate publishers (e.g., Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor and Francis) owns the top journals within a discipline. Those publishers have sufficient market control that subscription to their content is almost mandatory for libraries that strive to serve an active research community. Publishers use this market power to their advantage in negotiations with libraries and other institutional subscribers. Rather than offering individual journal subscriptions, large publishers and content providers typically offer libraries subscriptions to packages of journals.

Just as cable companies force customers who desire one or a few channels to pay for a package including access to hundreds of channels, so too publishers require libraries and other institutional subscribers to pay for packages containing hundreds or thousands of titles to gain access to the relatively few that they need. Unlike cable companies, publishers negotiate package prices with each subscriber; Elsevier packages cost large university libraries $2 million or more per year. Libraries have the option to purchase individual titles á la carte, but they pay a premium for the journals they retain and lose access to the others. Furthermore, many subscription packages are structured such that libraries that cancel packages lose access to content that they paid for in previous years. Libraries often hold many journals only in digital form, so if they cancel a subscription, then their users can’t access back issues.

The power and control of the major publishers in the market is self-reinforcing, as details from my institution, Western Washington University, demonstrate. Our libraries spend 15 percent of their resource acquisition budget on individual subscription titles, 45 percent on journal subscription package deals, and 26 percent on databases. The major publishing houses know that institutions such as ours depend on large packages to assure the viability of teaching and research, and thus have been able to demand annual price increases of 5 percent to 15 percent per year, far outpacing inflation. Yet, our library budget has no built-in capacity to deal with even base-level inflation; cuts in subscriptions are inevitable. We are in the politically painful process of cutting 17 percent from our subscriptions budget, and annual cuts of 4 percent per year are expected for the foreseeable future. It is much easier for the libraries to eliminate independently published individual titles that appeal to single disciplines, regardless of how intensively those resources are used, than to drop an entire package. Independent journals are thus under substantial pressure to join one of the larger publishers if they hope to remain viable. Over time, more and more of the publishing industry is thus assimilated into the portfolios of a very few corporate publishers.

The predictable consequence of these practices is extraordinary profit margins for corporate publishers and database providers in recent years. Elsevier’s 2017 profit margin of 36.8 percent is typical of its success over the past decade. Public funding of self-governed academic research is what makes these profits possible.

It is not surprising, then, that publication industry players would oppose Trump’s rumored executive action to make research results immediately and freely available upon publication. In their response letter, publishers lament, in part, that the proposal would “nationalize the valuable American intellectual property that [they] produce and force [them] to give it away to the rest of the world for free.” What they fail to mention is that currently academics publishing in most journals are themselves required to give their intellectual property to the publishers—and sometimes must pay publication fees for the right to do so. The research is then hidden from prospective users who cannot pay the asking price for access.

However they might respond based on their interests in scientific communication alone, the immediate fate of many academic societies is entangled with the interests of corporate publishing. Academic societies often own journals, and many have licensed the right to publish those journals to commercial publishers in order to remain viable during this era when libraries making cuts tend to look first at independent journals. Policy change that threatens publisher profits thus also threatens royalties that are essential revenue streams for many academic societies. Hence the numerous societies that signed onto the publication industry letter to the White House, though a number of those signatories have since reconsidered their position.

Though the broader academic research community would benefit from this shift, how it would respond is less clear. Any changes to the publication industry are likely to yield discomfort because publication is central to researcher evaluation and scientific self-governance practices.

Concerns about the viability of academic societies are worth paying attention to, but that problem should be addressed in other ways. The status quo damages science and it undermines society’s ability to access and benefit from the science it funds. There has been little news of the purported draft executive order since the initial reporting, so it is unclear when and if we can expect action, but Trump’s interest in shaking up the academic publication industry represents a genuine opportunity to make long-needed changes. Just don’t tell him that he’s building upon Obama’s work in the same area.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.