How the Scientific Publishing Industry Began to Eat Itself

14 Oct 2007 // science

Greg Tyrell of nodalpoint recently remarked that there was no point in defending open-access publishing because its triumph is a foregone conclusion. I agree with him. However, for the younger guys out there, it may not be obvious why subscription science magazines is going the way of the Dodo. So I would like to offer some history.

Like all things that has to do with the Internet, the computer scientists are ahead of the curve in the flight from the old model of scientific publishing.

In probably one of the biggest shocks of the scientific publishing world, in 2003, the entire editorial board of the prestigious Journal of Algorithms resigned en masse. They subsequently re-formed as the editorial board of a new journal with the similar-sounding name of ACM Transactions of Algorithms.

In a sharply worded letter, the co-founder of the journal (and legendary computer scientist) Donald Knuth, explained the reasons for the mass defection. The reason being that Elsevier had been gouging the subscribers of the Journal of Algorithms for years. It had reached the point where the only defense was to bail ship.

Just how much did Elsevier gouge? I borrow, perhaps the most informative graph on the cost of scientific publishing from Donald Knuth's open letter. Donald Knuth calculated the inflation-adjusted coster per page of the Journal of Algorithms over its lifetime.

The cost holds steady all the way to the late 1990's, when conglomeration of the scientific publishing industry hit home, and the inflation-adjusted price steadily creeps up year-by-year until it was almost twice as much as it was in 1995. Remember, this is the inflation-adjusted value – the plain dollar value would have risen even faster.

It hadn't always been like this. Back in the 1980's even before computer science was a science, Donald Knuth had a made a name for himself by publishing fundamental computer algorithms in math journals. He was eventually approached by the publishing house Academic Press to start a new journal. Thus, the Journal of Algorithms was born. For many years, this was amicable relationship. Academic Press provided the layout know-how and the distribution for the science published in the journal. Academic Press had developed a good relationship with the scientists, by charging a reasonable rate that would hold steady until the 1990's.

Then the world-wide recession of the 80's hit. Like every other industry, to cope, the scientific publishing industry conglomerated, swallowing many small and medium-sized publishing houses, including Academic Press, in its wake. This hobbesian process whittled down the industry into a small number of publishing giants. Of course, you can't really talk about corporations as if they were faceless behemoths. Real men benefit from the ensuing largesse, these include Crispin Davies, chief executive of Reed Elsevier; Robert Campbell, president of Blackwell Publishing; Richard Charkin of Nature Publishing and Dr John Jarvis, senior vice president of Wiley, Europe. The very same men who defended the profits of the scientific publishing sector in front of the UK parliament in 2004.

So how big are these giants exactly? If you look at the earnings report of Elsevier for 2006, they had 5.4 billion pounds in total revenue, with an operating profit of 1.2 billion pounds. To a crude calculation, that's a net profit of 22%, a lucrative profit margin indeed.

This figure of course, is world-wide, covers every scientific discipline, and includes the publishing of textbooks. As a point of comparison, the Medical Research Council, which is the source of a large slice of the United Kingdom medical research, had an operating budget of 6 billion pounds a year. Compare that to the annual revenues of Elsevier.

Consolidation of any industry naturally leads to monopoly (read for instance, Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"), and the lure of easy money. This is an entirely predictable economic process that would result in the creep of journal prices throughout the 1990's, putting a squeeze on publically-funded libraries, and subscribers of the journals. The price of the Journal of Algorithms just before Knuth et al. resigned in 2003, was $700. Today, the ACM Transactions of Algorithms can be got for a cool $180. The difference is the creme that Elsevier would have skimmed.

Nevertheless, there is a simple reason for the former editors of the Journal of Algorithms to make their great escape from the maws of the scientific publishing houses. Technology. There are two main breakthroughs that one can point at. The first is electronic desktop publishing. Now we can type, draft, and layout from any personal desktop computer. Indeed, it was the eponymous Donald Knuth who wrote the program Latex that would put desktop publishing into the hands of the programmer. And second, the internet, ungodly child of DARPA's dystopian paranoia, has allowed even a cloistered scientific community like the ACM to disseminate the fruits of their cogitations upon the face of the earth.