Democratizing digital journal publishing can fix serials crisis – Danielle Padula, Scholastica

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12 mins
Democratizing digital journal publishing can fix serials crisis – Danielle Padula, Scholastica

The term “serials crisis” has become synonymous with the increasing costs of academic journals. Researchers across the world are struggling to get and/or maintain access to research published in paywalled journals due to the high subscription costs. Is there a way to resolve this crisis? Scholastica, a peer review and open access publishing platform for academic journals, published a white paper on this issue titled “Democratizing Academic Journals: Technology, Services, and Open Access.” In this interview, I converse with Danielle Padula, Community Development Coordinator at Scholastica. Danielle is responsible for managing Scholastica’s blog and social media activity. She also develops content for journal teams to help them understand best publication practices and for researchers to help them in their publication journey. In this interview, Danielle discusses the white paper in the context of the current academic publishing scenario. In addition to talking about the circumstances that led to the serials crisis, she shares her thoughts on what major stakeholders of science should do to manage this problem.

For those who might not be familiar with the concept, could you explain what the “serials crisis” means? Why is it referred to as a crisis?

The serials crisis boils down to the fact that exorbitant prices are making it increasingly difficult for academic institutions to afford research articles published in journals (aka “serials”). The serials crisis is a result of rising journal subscription prices, primarily by corporate publishers.

This is a crisis situation because the future of scholarly research depends on academics having access to new research in order to keep reevaluating and building off of work being done. Right now, many university libraries are struggling to afford subscriptions to journals with some having to drop titles and lose access to the research published in them. The public also predominantly lacks access to research because journal subscriptions and individual articles are so costly. This is ironic because the majority of research is publicly funded by taxpayers and therefore should be made accessible.

What prompted Scholastica to write a white paper on this issue?

We wanted to explore the underlying causes of the serials crisis more closely and look at where the scholarly community stands in the trajectory of transitioning to open access publishing. I think it is a surprise to many how quickly article processing charges (APCs) are rising and how unsustainable the situation is right now. APCs are rising by 6% a year, with some exceeding $5000 - meaning the author has to find $5000 in order to get their article published. There is a clear link between corporate publishers and the most expensive titles - both subscription and open access (OA). We wanted to look at what is allowing corporate publishers to keep raising prices as well as how the academic community can force down costs.

What we found is that there are three key elements at play that have put corporate publishers in a power position in terms of pricing: (1) corporate publishers have gained centralized control over the majority of journals (5 publishers now control over 50% of the market); (2) they’ve accrued large concentrations of titles with high Journal Impact Factor (JIF); (3) and they’ve benefited from specialized publishing models in print and early digital publishing. For a long time it was onerous and costly for nonprofits to publish journals on their own and that’s why many started contracting out production to corporate publishers around the 1960s. With these factors at play corporate publishers have had sort of free range in raising prices because the academic community needed their services. Today, however, technology is really changing many aspects of the publishing process and making it possible to de-specialize journal publishing so that non-profit groups can easily and inexpensively manage journals on their own. At Scholastica we’re committed to giving journals the tools they need to affordably manage peer review and publish in order to lower barriers to research access. We wanted to explore what the true cost of publishing OA articles online is and discuss how technology can impact that. That was the underlying thought behind our white paper.

Do you think the “publish or perish” phenomenon, which is often used to describe the culture of academia, might have created circumstances that led to the serials crisis?

I do think the “publish or perish” culture is related to the serials crisis, primarily with regard to scholars feeling the pressure to publish in journals with high impact factor. As I mentioned earlier, corporate publishers have accrued large concentrations of journals with high impact factor. Knowing that scholars seek to publish in those titles for prestige and that consequently much of the most cited research resides in those journals, corporate publishers have been able to essentially strong arm libraries into paying higher and higher prices for them. Moving away from reliance on the JIF will play a major role in overcoming the serials crisis. So long as scholars keep focusing on publishing in and citing journals with a high JIF, corporate publishers will have the power to keep hiking journal prices. We do see a lot of change happening right now that suggests the JIF is being challenged. For example, The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) is a widespread initiative to improve the way research is vetted by calling for institutions and funding agencies to look beyond the JIF. That petition has over twelve thousand signatures. I think change is happening and that alternatives to the JIF will start to temper its dominance. 

The white paper also highlights the issue of “corporate control over the academic journal industry.” It’d be interesting to know more about this. Could you please elaborate? 

Corporate ownership of journals is definitely a big piece of the picture. As I mentioned, five corporate publishers now control a majority of the academic journals market. The combination of centralized control of journals, ownership of high impact titles, and specialized publishing models has traditionally put them in a power position in negotiations where they have been able to keep raising prices knowing the academic community would have to pay for their services. However, online publishing and technology is starting to turn the tables and many are questioning whether corporate publishers are providing adequate value to justify their high costs. Arguably - and this has been expressed by many including Michael Eisen, co-founder of PLoS - a big issue with the corporate model is the focus on print-based publishing. According to the 2015 STM report, and just what we can see in scholar behavior, the medium of print is dwindling and scholars are moving towards online-only research. Yet, many corporate publishers still insist on having print issues and many follow print-based publishing models in online research production. Today, we see examples of non-profits publishing online-only journals much more affordably; for example, Ubiquity Press and PeerJ both have APCs in the low hundreds of dollars. These examples are causing many to question the efficiency of corporate publishers and also their necessity. Much of the work corporate publishers do can be automated and in that way made much more affordable and entirely de-specialized. 

That’s an interesting thought. Your white paper recommends “democratization of academic journals” as the solution to the serials crisis. Could you explain how this would work?

When we say democratization we mean it in the sense of making the tools and knowledge needed to publish academic journals accessible to all. It comes down to de-specializing publishing and eliminating the need for contracting out production to third-party publishers. When corporate publishers take over journals they have endless possibilities to raise prices to cover their services, the true cost of which has remained quite clandestine. In a democratized environment academics would gain much greater transparency over journal costs because they would be able to choose among online services that would make it possible to manage publishing on their own.  We’ve seen this occur in other industries such as financial technology. For a long time personal finance planning was reserved for a select few who could afford an advisor, but today robo advisors are lowering the cost of such services and democratizing them. A similar situation in publishing would allow for the rapid decentralization of journals from corporate publishers, greater transparency, and, therefore, lower publication costs.

Open access publishing has also been listed as another potential solution to the issue of rising publishing costs. How effective do you think this alternative model of publishing will be in dealing with rising costs?

I think the important thing to distinguish here is that OA solves the problem of readers not being able to access costly research because it eliminates paywalls, but it doesn’t guarantee that the publication of research will be affordable to the academic and non-profit institutions primarily funding it. While OA research is free to read, it still requires some funding to be produced since even the most basic online-only journals need to pay for website hosting, etc. Putting all of this together, we know that affordable OA, if managed correctly, represents great opportunity to produce research more economically online. However, if journals remain centralized among corporate publishers and they continue raising prices for profit, we could see the serials crisis morph into an APC crisis. Björn Brembs warns of this, explaining that APC-based OA in the current corporate controlled market could make matters worse as corporate publishers could keep raising APCs, particularly for the most desirable high impact titles. If this were to occur, Gold OA fees could ultimately match or surpass serials costs. 

To what extent do you think researchers are aware of the serials crisis or the challenges faced by institutional libraries in enabling access to published research?

I think scholars are becoming more aware of these issues, but there are still many who are just learning about them - mainly early career researchers. There’s also a need to communicate that OA by itself isn’t a full solution to the serials crisis. Scholars need to be aware that high APCs being extracted from the academic community are coming from the same place as serials budgets. In the white paper, Roxanne Missingham really hit the point home when she expressed that one of her main concerns with the future of OA is scholars thinking there is bottomless funding for weaning off of subscriptions and moving to OA. In reality there aren’t unlimited funds and we need to more rapidly eliminate high subscriptions and nip high APCs in the bud to avoid members of the academic community losing access to research or struggling to afford to publish their work. That’s a real concern.

And extending the previous question, what can researchers do to improve this situation to deal with the serials crisis?

In terms of improving the situation and helping to curb the serials crisis, I think the main role of researchers is publishing their research responsibly. They can do this by seeking to publish in OA journals with sustainable models. As pointed out in the white paper, many non-profit groups of all sizes are introducing sustainable titles, from Open Library of the Humanities to Discrete Analysis. The other piece is helping to encourage and embrace alternatives to the classic journal impact factor. Things like joining DORA, educating others about alternative impact indicators, and questioning institutions that rely on the JIF are all key to improving the situation. Finally, a point emphasized by Stevan Harnad is the power of Green OA. Scholars should make either a pre- or post-publication version of their work available in an archive or institutional repository. This is especially important for early career researchers who still feel the pressure to publish in high-impact titles. It’s imperative that articles be made Green OA so that subscriptions aren’t needed to access them. Ultimately, researchers have to take steps to support each other and work towards sustainable OA that puts control of journals back in the hands of the academic community.

Given the strong debates about making drastic changes to the conventional publishing model, how do you envision the future of scholarly publishing to be?

We foresee that the future of scholarly journals will not be dominated by a single publishing model but instead will be characterized by multiple models that democratize the publishing process, with different models fitting the needs of different disciplines. One thing we pointed out in the paper is the fact that some disciplines, such as the humanities, have limited access to APC funding. So in the future we expect a combination of funding models including APC, subsidies, grants, and Green OA. At the same time, we foresee a future in which academic institutions and nonprofits will be able to manage all aspects of the journal publishing lifecycle - from peer review to production to distribution - on their own using online services. In such a system, rather than contracting out titles to corporate publishers, nonprofits will bid for the most affordable services to publish in-house.

The spread of service-based models for publishing academic journals will allow the academic community to maintain copyright control of research, launch more affordable journals, and foster new publishing models to challenge costly corporate norms, and ultimately encourage scholars and institutions to looks beyond the JIF. We believe democratizing journals by giving members of the nonprofit sector the ability to affordably publish on their own is the only way to make OA sustainable in the long term.

Thank you, Danielle, for this great interview.

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Published on: Apr 26, 2017

Sneha’s interest in the communication of research led her to her current role of developing and designing content for researchers and authors.
See more from Sneha Kulkarni


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