Contrary to popular belief, scientific publishing is a robust business sector. In 2015, the global STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) publishing market alone was estimated to be worth over $25 billion USD, and that represents just a portion of the market. Scientific journals are the crown jewels of this market, and global information analytics company Elsevier has asserted its position as the dominant player within the scientific publishing space, as its market share is almost equal to that of the next three companies combined - Thomson Reuters, Springer, Wiley.
Science has always been the enabler of innovation, and will always be intrinsically linked to the progress of our society. It represents the most effective mechanism we have ever designed to promote new economic activity and nurture new, groundbreaking industries, which, in turn, can make the world a better place. This sentiment was captured by influential political commentator Joseph Schumpeter, an economist and professor at Harvard when he said: “science is, and always has been, at the center of our economic system.” This idea still rings true today.
How the process of academic publishing works now
Brian Nosek, a professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Center for Open Science described how lucrative the academic publishing sector could be, calling it “the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.” A traditional publisher like a magazine has to cover a multitude of costs, paying writers to write articles, employing editors to structure and check articles, and paying for the distribution of the finished products to subscribers and retailers. This process is expensive, and even the most successful magazines only make 12 to 15% profit.
The process of publishing academic articles is similar, except scientific publishers manage to cut out most of the publishing costs. As such, their profit margins are significantly higher than those of a traditional publisher. In 2010, Elsevier reported profits of £724 million GBP, with a 36% margin – higher than what Apple, Google, and Amazon reported that year.
That’s because scientists, funded by governments, write articles under their own direction and give them to publishers for free. Although publishers pay scientific editors to judge whether the articles are worth publishing, most of the work such as checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments is done by other volunteering scientists. Publishers then sell the articles to government-funded institutions and universities to be read by scientists. This vicious circle disfavors both researchers and governments, while publishers fill their pockets.
In 2005, a Deutsche Bank report called this process a “bizarre triple-pay system,” noting that “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product.” Scientists are well aware of the inefficiencies associated with this process, and many onlookers think the publishing industry has too much influence when it comes to determining what scientists choose to study, which, in turn, has a negative impact on the evolution of science.
Outlets favor new, spectacular or controversial results, so scientists, knowing what kind of articles get published, try to tailor their research accordingly. The impact of this flawed system can immediately be seen in the high number of low-quality journals, and some critics go even further, blaming the current journal publishing system for holding back scientific progress. Essentially, a handful of scientific publishers are shaping the evolution of science according to their financial interests. This is an untenable situation. To top it off, the current academic publishing sphere doesn’t even address the issues of plagiarism and idea ownership. If a researcher were to send a plagiarized article for publishing, no one would be any wiser.
How big the scholarly publication market actually is
In 2015, the number of active researchers was estimated to be at 9 million. These researchers were publishing between 1.8 and 2 million articles per year, which produced more than 2.5 billion full-text downloads from STM (Scientific, Technical and, Medical) publishers’ websites, plus perhaps another 400 million from other sites. A full report on the scientific and scholarly journal publishing industry can be found here.
These numbers grow by 3-3.5% every year and do not take into consideration open access models which also represent a significant percentage of the market. To put these numbers into context, the total number of apps downloaded from the Apple AppStore during its first three years of existence was only 3 billion. The open-access STM journal publishing market was estimated at $500 million USD in 2015 (up from $100 million USD in 2010).
Google Scholar, the world's largest index source, is estimated to have between 125 and 175 million documents. Journals under subscription are becoming inactive, while the popularity of open-access journals is increasing. Articles originating from open-access journals are now comprising 20% of total yearly scholarly articles.
The top five publishers account for 50% to 70% of all publications. For years, the cost of journals has been increasing at a far higher rate than the Consumer Price Index. For example, in the last few years, research center libraries have experienced 4 to 7% increases in the cost of journals, annually! Given the fact that the research community pays for most of the editorial expenses, the only explanation of the price increase is the oligopolistic position of the publishing industry. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find accurate numbers as they are not made public by the parties involved, as libraries and universities worldwide are usually required to sign non-disclosure agreements regarding the cost of their contracts with the publishers.
As the scientific publishing sector continues to evolve, the landscape has been dramatically altered by the emergence and prevalence of social media. Today, an article’s impact is judged on the number of clicks, views, downloads, shares, likes, online responses, and the number of times it is cited in peer-reviewed journals. Professional social networks such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn or GoogleScholar, along with mass social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, are playing a crucial role in determining an article’s impact and reach. Therefore, by democratizing the scholarly publication process, the quality of the academic journals, as well as researchers’ reputation, are increasing. Previously, a researcher’s reputation depended on the reputation of the outlet that was publishing him or her - the more prestigious a publisher was, the more notoriety a researcher gained. Social media has indeed changed the game.
While the current scientific publishing industry is one of the most lucrative worldwide, the current scholarly publication process has several problems that affect the research community, such as high publication costs, copyrights held by publishers instead of authors, biased publication and peer review processes, lack of rewards and recognition for reviewers, and a proliferation of low-quality journals.
By utilizing blockchain, we can eliminate market inefficiencies and improve the quality and effectiveness of scientific publishing. Our ultimate objective should be to build publication platforms for the research community which leverage the unique and seamless integration of cutting-edge technologies to create a platform to process, validate, and disseminate research data and results.
Through the utilization of smart contracts, decentralized storage solutions, big data analytics, and cloud computing, we firmly believe that blockchain technology can be harnessed to greatly accelerate the peer review process and usher in a new era of transparency and efficiency for the sector. I’m excited to see our vision take shape as we continue to revolutionize the academic publishing sector, building peer review infrastructures that enable open, trustworthy, decentralized, and collaborative environments.
Antonio Romero, Co-Founder, Orvium, an open source platform for managing scholarly publications’ lifecycles, working to make scientific data more accessible, increasing scientific output, and benefiting society at large