Media

Dylan’s Desk: Watch this multi-billion-dollar industry evaporate overnight

Above: Is anyone in this library reading an actual book or journal? Didn't think so.

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Imagine an industry where a few companies make billions of dollars by exerting strict control over valuable information — while paying the people who produce that information nothing at all.

That’s the state of academic, scientific publishing today. And it’s about to be blown wide open by much more open, Internet-based publishers.

This will unfold over the next few years. It will become a classic case study in technological disruption.

Academic journals are a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide — maybe $10 billion annually. It’s dominated by a handful of publishers: Elsevier, with $3.2 billion in revenues in 2012, and Springer, with $1.1 billion in the same year.

Both companies boast margins in excess of 35 percent, thanks in part to their low cost of content production. Scientists who want to publish the results of their research submit their manuscripts to these publishers’ journals (free); other scientists review those papers to assess their credibility and quality (free); and then the journals publish the papers, selling subscriptions to universities and corporations who need them (definitely not free).

Journal subscriptions are an enormous cost for academic libraries. As of 2012, Harvard University was spending $3.75 million annually on journal subscriptions. Other, less-well-funded libraries spend hundreds of thousands a year, and have had to drop many subscriptions because the costs are so high — and rising.

“Right now it’s very hard for anyone outside academia to read research, because it’s so expensive,” says Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu, one of the online publishers that’s seeking to disrupt this market. Instead of charging exorbitant subscription fees, Academia.edu provides access to its papers for free. All you need to do is register.

I talked to Price earlier this week, just as Academia.edu passed the 10 million user mark. Ten million is a lot, given that Price estimates there are only 17 million academic researchers affiliated with scholarly institutions worldwide. (That total includes grad students.) There’s another large number of scientists who do academic research but for corporations, but nobody knows exactly how many.

Not every person registered on Academia.edu is an academic. Some are just interested lay people signing on to check out a single paper. Price says venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is one such user, having registered recently to do some research. Still, that’s a big number relative to the available market.

There are other “open” publishers of academic papers, like the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, which has published 84,000 papers to date. Arxiv.org, which focuses on physics and hard sciences, has published 940,000 papers. Academia.edu has published 2.9 million. The numbers are not exactly comparable, though, since PLOS papers are peer-reviewed, while Arxiv.org and Academia.edu don’t review their papers before publication, which lowers the barrier to entry significantly.

Taken together, these online publishers represent a significant threat to traditional journal publishers like Elsevier because they reach more people and cost nothing. The only remaining value that traditional publishers offer is the imprimatur they provide: The articles they publish have been peer-reviewed and are thus presumably more reliable.

But even that imprimatur is under attack. The “reproducibility crisis” in academic publishing refers to the fact that a huge proportion of published research, particularly in medical fields, is based on results that cannot be reproduced by other researchers. In one study, a tiny 6 percent of scientific findings in cancer research were reproducible. In my opinion, if their research isn’t reproducible, then the other 94 percent is essentially worthless.

Price thinks he can address the issue by rethinking the peer-review system and having Academia.edu members review papers after publication. In this somewhat super-charged take on commenting, the most credible papers would get reviewed (and endorsed) by thousands of qualified scientists instead of just a handful. He acknowledges that the company hasn’t quite cracked that nut yet, though.

Price also hasn’t quite figured out how to make money from Academia.edu’s millions of members and papers. He figures that once the site reinvents peer review, it can charge universities and corporations for access to the short list of most-credible papers in any given field. If Academia.edu publishes 60,000 papers on cancer treatment, knowing which 6,000 have received the most favorable ratings from qualified reviewers would be a valuable thing. But for now, that’s just a dream.

Arxiv.org is similarly revenue-free: It’s operated by Cornell University Library and supported by grants. PLOS is a nonprofit, with revenues of $38.8 million in 2012, primarily from publication fees charged to authors.

Indeed, Academia.edu, PLOS, and Arxiv.org are doing something remarkable: They’re mounting a full-frontal assault on a multi-billion-dollar industry and replacing it with something that makes much, much less money.

They’re far more efficient and fairer, and they vastly increase the openness and availability of research information. I believe this will be nothing but good for the human race in the long run. But I’m sure the executives of Elsevier, Springer, and others are weeping into their lattes as they watch this industry evaporate.

Maybe they can get together with newspaper executives to commiserate.

More about the companies and people from this article:

Academia.edu is a platform for academics to share research papers. The company's mission is to accelerate the world's research. Academics use Academia.edu to share their research, monitor deep analytics around the impact of their re... read more »

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24 comments
Marshall Poe
Marshall Poe

This article is based on a misunderstanding of who actually controls the publication of research. It's not journal publishers, or even journals per se. It's the professors who vet the submitted articles. That means journal editors (the first cut) and journal article reviewers (the second cut). All would-be professors/researchers and practicing professors/researchers know that peer review in an established journal is the gold standard for publications that "count." The force that holds this process (and the journals used to support it) in place is cultural: academics insist that this is way it must be done, no matter how slow, cumbersome or expensive. 


It seems to me likely that all established journals will go online and possible dispense with paper (many already have). The companies/institutions/scholarly societies that own and currently publish those journals will continue to own and publish them. The process of vetting will not change because academics believe that it is the best way to ensure quality. So what we have is a switch from one medium to another, not the disruption of an industry. 


It is not true that "right now it’s very hard for anyone outside academia to read research, because it’s so expensive." I know this from personal experience. All I have to do to get a paper is to find the author's email and ask them to send me a pre-print version. I've never been refused. 

David Jensen
David Jensen

Many of the comments on this article virtually duplicate what was said within the newspaper industry prior to its near collapse when the Internet became vastly more accessible.  Those commenting are finding value in relatively minor aspects of journals and missing the overwhelming power and attraction of technology.  The Internet has enabled speedier, cheaper and, in many ways, better means of scientific publishing.  Moreover, it is a tidal force and has already resulted in massive changes in book publishing, music and film.  The cosseted business of academic publishing is not likely to be an exception.  

Lenny Teytelman
Lenny Teytelman

Just a few corrections:

1. This is not an overnight effort. Many people have devoted their lives to this shift over the past 20 years.

Here is  a list of the visionaries who deserve the credit. http://anothersb.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-open-accessscience-visionaries.html

2. Academia.edu has not published 2.9m papers. Their users upload and share PDFs of articles published in traditional journals. That is in no way a threat to the current journal publishing model.

3. Academia.edu and ResearchGate are not the leaders or serious players in this transition (they may be in the future, but nothing as of now indicates that they are part of the effort).

4. Richard Price is not the one re-imagining peer review. There is now a 10-year history of attempts to get post-publication peer review to work. Most of the experiments have not gained traction, but two websites have finally succeeded in creating the post-pub commenting community. These are PubPeer.com (https://pubpeer.com) and PubMed Commons from the U.S. National Library of Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedcommons/).

Courtney Carthy
Courtney Carthy

"This will unfold over the next few years." Or overnight? Which one is it?

Scott Lightner
Scott Lightner

That train sadly left the station a long time ago: crowdsourcing

Daniel Feller
Daniel Feller

Academics get promoted (and paid) based on what they publish in top journals. Students get graded based on what top journals they us in their coursework. These are the current rules of the game. Until a course from Coursera becomes equally prestige as one from a top Institute this is not likely going to change any day soon. Ps quite often it's faster to find the journal articles on Google or Google Scholar rather than going through the university system.

James Hamlin
James Hamlin

Tldr: academia.edu is going to revolutionize scientific publishing! Oh wait... They have no idea how they're going to do it.

Christina Schweitzer
Christina Schweitzer

its the wild wild west...don't overthink it. everything is fast and technology is the fastest. its not for the ages, its for now. make the dough and get on to the next thing...

Andre F. Bourque
Andre F. Bourque

My first guess was "for-profit higher education." So this article is both, part economics, and part intrigue. 

Grace Wang
Grace Wang

I am more and more tired of exaggeration in tech news

Geng Wang
Geng Wang

Not really buying it. Have to think about incentives. Professors are evaluated based on how many articles they publish and in which journals. Unless schools change their evaluation policies, this will not work. Not to mention I just don't see too scholars wanting to publish in these no name sites. Articles take years sometimes to write and you can only publish them once so not likely to waste your best work. That would be like Michael Jordan deciding to play in a new basketball league that's "fairer" and not the NBA.

Nicholas M. Cummings
Nicholas M. Cummings

I hope academic journals evaporate, they create weird incentives for professors, researchers, put up walls between information preventing free flow and innovation

C Brandon Chapman
C Brandon Chapman

Honestly, I'm trying to have our professors learn to speak to the masses through a variety of other mediums. Some have embraced it. It's a work in progress, to be sure.

Brad King
Brad King

This is nearly spot on, but he's wrong about peer review. 


The process BEFORE publication is invaluable. However, open access journals and Academia.edu offer something that traditional journals don't: the ability to publish NEGATIVE results. In other words: peer review is necessary to the vetting process, but it's a PROCESS. 


Currently, it's very difficult to get a paper published that says, "We can't replicate this" or even "We can replicate this." It's not viewed as "original" and thus doesn't drive marketing. By opening up the publishing process, these groups need to tie theoretical research to exploratory research to basic science research to replication research. Whoever effectively ties these parts of the process together (and string together a hyperlinked version of the Citations in the way Berners-Lee envisioned) will have changed how we create knowledge. 


Without that, you've just destroyed an industry (one I hate, by the way); you haven't disrupted ANYTHING. And what we need is disruption.

Paul Denlinger
Paul Denlinger

People have been predicting the disappearance of academic peer review journals for the past 20 years, and it hasn't happened. I predict that they will disappear when expensive country club memberships disappear, and throw their membership open to women and people of color for free.

Bill Keeshen
Bill Keeshen

Some thoughts:

 35% margins are not to die for, they are in fact what every good business should shoot for, unless you are a supermarket.  The incumbents still have the experiencing of curating that data, not an easy task to automate.  They also have the added advantage of a customer base.  So does the industry really implode, or does it evolve.  I sense the latter. as even newspapers are finding a way to change with the times.

Cesar A. Berrios
Cesar A. Berrios

@Brad King I disagree. Peer review is invaluable. Whether it happens before or after publication is irrelevant AS LONG as there is a clear statement as to what's the status of peer review.

Disclaimer: I work for one of the disrupters: F1000Research - The first Open Sciencejournal for life scientists (www.f1000research.com). Apropos, we just published the first refutation of Obokata's STAP cell Nature paper. 

Stanislav Prusac
Stanislav Prusac

@Brad King Exactly, this is not disruption especially without the linked data and improvements in peer review process.