Think it's hard to make money in publishing in the digital age? Well, huge profits are still to be had – if you're a publisher of academic research journals.

While traditional book and magazine publishers struggle to stay afloat, research publishing houses have typical profit margins of nearly 40 per cent, says Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal's School of Library and Information Science.

'The quality control is free, the raw material is free, and then you charge very, very high amounts – of course you come up with very high profit margins.' - Vincent Larivière, University of Montreal

Researchers rely on journals to keep up with the developments in their field. Most of the time, they access the journals online through subscriptions purchased by university libraries. But universities are having a hard time affording the soaring subscriptions, which are bundled so that universities effectively must pay for hundreds of journals they don't want in order to get the ones they do.

Larivière says the cost of the University of Montreal's journal subscriptions is now more than $7 million a year  – ultimately paid for by the taxpayers and students who fund most of the university's budget. Unable to afford the annual increases, the university has started cutting subscriptions, angering researchers.

"The big problem is that libraries or institutions that produce knowledge don't have the budget anymore to pay for [access to] what they produce," Larivière said.

"They could have closed one library a year to continue to pay for the journals, but then in twenty-something years, we would have had no libraries anymore, and we would still be stuck with having to pay the annual increase in subscriptions."

Given the situation, he wanted to track what proportion of papers was being published by these large academic publishers compared to in the past (and how big a deal it would be to cut some of those subscriptions.)

'Oligarchy' of publishers

What he and his collaborators found was that the five largest, for-profit academic publishers now publish 53 per cent of scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences – up from 20 per cent in 1973. In the social sciences, the top five publishers publish 70 per cent of papers. 

Essentially, they've become an oligarchy, Larivière and co-authors Stefanie Haustein and Philippe Mongeon say in a paper published last week in the open access, non-profit journal PLOS ONE.

Vincent Lariviere

'We need journals because of their prestige,' says University of Montreal researcher Vincent Larivière. 'Journals give discoveries and researchers a hierarchy.' (University of Montreal)

"The control that they now have over the scientific output researchers I would say is way too high," he said. "So that's why they can come up with annual increases that are between five six , seven, even 10 per cent."

A look at a history of the journals showed how that happened. Traditionally, most journals were published by non-profit scientific societies. But when journals shifted from print to online digital formats, those societies couldn't afford the cost of the equipment needed to make the switch. Instead, they sold their journals to large, for-profit publishers, Larivière said.

Authors, reviewers unpaid

Aside from the costs of switching itself, the digital age has made publishing even cheaper for scientific journals, which already have a business model that sounds too good to be true. Unlike other authors, researchers don't get paid for the papers they write, and peer reviewers don't get paid either.

computer

Traditionally, most journals were published by non-profit scientific societies. But when journals shifted from print to online digital formats, those societies couldn't afford the cost of the equipment needed to make the switch. (Shutterstock )

"The quality control is free, the raw material is free, and then you charge very, very high amounts – of course you come up with very high profit margins."

This model originally existed because it was necessary for sharing research in the age of print. It's no longer a practical necessity in the digital age.

But it continues to exist because researchers' funding and career advancement are tied to the number of papers they publish in top journals.

"We need journals because of their prestige," Larivière said. "Journals give discoveries and researchers a hierarchy."

He said part of the problem is that university libraries and not researchers pay the subscription fees, so many researchers aren't even aware that access to the journals costs money.

New open access policy

He thinks the scientific community needs to come up with a solution.

Change is already happening. Physics researchers have been publishing publicly accessible preprints of their papers on a site called arxiv.org since 1991. Most are posted there before being submitted to a journal and some are never sent to journals at all. Other disciplines could do that too.

Meanwhile, Canada's biggest granting agencies announced a new "open access" policy, effective May 1. It requires all recipients of grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (which already had a similar policy) to make their research results publicly available within one year of publication either via an online repository or an open access journal.

Larivière hopes changes like those will eventually reduce the dependence that universities have on their library subscriptions.