Changes to STEM Scholarly Communication

***This essay was written by CityLIS student Camilla Paffey in April 2019. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

The means by which academics have traditionally disseminated their findings has a rich and varied history. Whilst the Humanities and Social Science (HSS) have tended to regard monographs as the classic route for research dissemination; STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have traditionally taken on many unique forms; ranging from public lectures, to unofficial pamphlets, to private correspondence circles, and more. Although STEM does occasionally feature some core key textbooks, journal articles rather than monographs have conventionally been the primary method of disseminating new research and scholarly communications. This paper will consequently seek to explore the more recent developments of scholarly communication within the field of STEM; primarily focusing upon the development of the world wide web and the changes it has caused in scholarly communication and research dissemination. This will include a focus on open access; the various ways it can be realised and the implications it now has for publishers and library and information services.

Generally speaking, it is safe to say that the most influential development in scholarly communications of recent times has been the advent of the world wide web, or internet. Besides digital journals, entirely new means and methods for dissemination of research now exist. Academics can use social media websites such as Twitter to share their articles, engage in discourse with other academics and to communicate with the general public. Alternatively, personal blogs facilitate the dissemination of more informal (but equally important) academic outputs such as opinion pieces, discourse and reviews. The internet has consequently absorbed and streamlined existing methods of written dissemination due to its ability to reproduce and transmit the written word quickly and accurately. Furthermore, its decentralised nature has tremendously facilitated improvements within collaborative academic work. It allows for scientists worldwide to collaborate in real-time, regardless of geographical location, to create huge global research projects, and to develop and share vast open data sets. Digital dissemination has also allowed for an increased diversity in content formats, such as video essays and interactive learning mediums, e.g. VR. Of equal importance is the fact that the introduction of the internet has also boosted existing open access efforts; allowing for the development of new digital pre-print repositories (e.g. arXiv), institutional repositories and online open access journals. This has allowed it to make possible ‘new business models such as the Big Deal by aggregating content into collections and aggregating libraries into consortia requiring new skills of both publishers and librarians.’

These developments have taken place alongside a re-evaluation of the place of the academic journal as the primary means of research dissemination. The dominance of this method of scholarly transmission beforehand cannot be understated. Between 1950 and 1980, the worldwide number of journals grew from an estimated ‘10,000 to 62,000’ . Fyfe et al.’s, ‘Untangling Academic Publishing’ reveals that this growth had been occurring for some time, but most significantly during the mid-twentieth century. This increase in journals initially coincided with the expansion of the university sector, but reductions in funding during the 1980’s meant that academic libraries began to struggle to keep up with this growth in academic publishing. This was further exacerbated by the fact that the price of journals rose faster than inflation. This predicament became known as the “Serials Crisis” and was a significant concern for the academic community.
As an attempt to solve the problem, the first “Big Deal” was introduced by the Academic Press in 1996. It offered all-you-can-eat deals for bundles of journals (often a publisher’s entire range) at a discount. Heralded by Derk Haank, the (now retiring) CEO of Springer, as the ‘best thing since sliced bread,’ it was an important development for both academic publishers and libraries. Initially it seemed to have solved the serials crisis, as many libraries could now afford more resources for their academics. Scholarly Kitchen’s Michael Clarke points out that it ‘has provided more access to more content for more researchers than any other publishing model to date.’ In these terms, it was a success that had a positive impact on the academic community, libraries and publishers to boot. Unfortunately, the shine of these benefits soon wore off for librarians as the deals began to take up ever increasing proportions of library budgets. Libraries were locked into the deals, granting publishers a distinct market domination. This monopoly meant a marked increase in publisher’s profit margins. To use Elsevier as a pertinent example:

‘In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year… successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.’

This figure does not represent an isolated lucky year. ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era,’ by Larivière et. al, presents data showing similar profit margins consistently for the major publishers (Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage) in the STEM field. Whilst a financial jackpot for publishers, the implementation of the big deal set in motion future problems for academic libraries and information services which are felt heavily today. Non-disclosure agreements mean that libraries cannot compare notes on the prices they have been charged. Furthermore, the deals generally prevent a purchaser from cancelling underused journals to reduce expenditure. In ‘The Big Deal: Not Price But Cost’ Richard Poynder illustrates the issues with these types of agreements, pointing out that ‘if a library needs to cut expenses, it can only do so by walking away from that publisher’s journals entirely, or reverting to title-by-title purchasing at a much higher cost—essentially reversing all of the previous gains.’ This has hidden implications for the publishing industry at large: to meet the cost of these deals, libraries began to cancel subscriptions to smaller journals. As smaller publishers struggle to compete, many are taken over by the larger publishers. Notably, this is a bigger issue in STEM, where the five major publishers put out roughly half of the research , in HSS that figure is closer to approximately 20% as of 2013. The resulting monopoly of a few major players consequently discourages healthy competition within publishing and means establishing new journals can be very difficult.

In the mid 1990’s, online publishing, electronic resources and online scholarly communications began to gather momentum. Initially, for libraries, this meant a huge reduction in print stock and the associated expenses. Library space was repurposed to house computer terminals, as opposed to stacks of journals. Libraries could offer more stock than ever before, without the restriction of physical space. This was especially advantageous for small libraries. In addition, these resources could be accessed by multiple users simultaneously, regardless of geographical location, without the frustrating slow wait times for inter-library loans or returns. Along with the libraries, publishers also initially profited from the move to digital. Larivière et al.’s research demonstrated that ‘the top commercial publishers have benefited from the digital era, as it led to a dramatic increase in the share of scientific literature they published.’ E-journals were not limited by paper, which meant an increase in the volume (though not necessarily quality) of literature published and consequently available for sale. In fact, the digital boom lead to an average 6% per annum increase in the volume of work published. It also dramatically sped up the timeframe in which a publisher could put a submission into print.
Unfortunately, increasing volumes of work meant increasing costs of scholarly communications; resurrecting the old problems of the serials crisis. The Economist shows that, in Britain, ‘65% of the money spent on content in academic libraries goes on journals, up from a little more than half ten years ago.’ With costs increased and budgets decreased; the big deals may have offered lower per-unit costs, but ‘the problem is that lower per-unit costs do little to help librarians grapple with the more fundamental affordability problem confronting them.’

Although the issues of the serials crisis have consequently returned to a degree, other avenues have offered some reprieve to struggling library and information services. The internet gave the concept of open access the boost it needed; allowing for the development of new projects such as institutional repositories, open access publishers like PLoS ONE, and pre-print repositories like arXiv. Open access typically means that the work is published with an open licence so that other researchers can build upon it. This type of openness is key to the collaborative nature of science, and contrasts heavily with the commercial publisher’s model of locking research behind paywalls. Open access costs are funded by charging the author an Article Processing Charge (APC), which is often covered by their institution or funding grants. Open access publishing also tends to be vastly cheaper; for example, ‘a paper that costs US$5,000 for an author to publish in Cell Reports, might cost just $1,350 to publish in PLoS ONE’ (For additional information, please see “Fig. 1: The Cost of Publishing” in the appendix.) Though the APC model is far from perfect, it represents an important development; as the APC means that the research is free at the point of access. This facet is extremely beneficial for libraries in underdeveloped areas and for any taxpayers who may have funded the work.

Nature reports that in 2012, 11.5% of papers were immediately available through open access publication, but by ‘2016 it had risen to 18.9%’ . This rise in open access materials, pre-print and institutional repositories has strengthened academics’ and librarians’ position in the resistance of commercial publishers and big deals. Some, (namely the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Projekt DEAL (Germany), the Bibsam Consortium (Sweden), and Couperin (France)), are now refusing to renew deals with big commercial publishers such as Elsevier as they simply cannot reach an agreement with them. Others, such as the 17,000+ academics involved in ‘The Cost of Knowledge’ boycott, are refusing to publish with, or peer-review for major commercial publishers as a show of protest. Given that such protests can often struggle to achieve major change on their own however, more direct intervention has been taken in some regards. For example, one practical development in open access efforts has been the development of Plan S. Plan S is an open access publishing initiative launched in September 2018. As stated by cOAlition S, their main goal is that:

After 1st January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.

Plan S’s 10 principles outline that published research must be immediately open access and under an open licence. It also stipulates that authors, not publishers, will retain copyright over the publications. The principles specifically disallow publishing in hybrid journals and warn that non-compliance will incur sanctions. For libraries, Plan S would mean that “read and publish” deals, where libraries pay subscriptions to access paywalled articles, but their researchers publish their work as open-access, would no longer be viable. ‘Plan S dictates that these [read-and-publish] agreements be phased out by 2024.’

For publishers, Plan S will have a considerable impact. Ultimately, the researchers must comply with the terms under which they accept their funding, and if funders dictate sanctions for publication in paywalled journals, these journals will likely see a big dip in their submissions. Publishers are thus objecting vociferously to Plan S, claiming it would render their business models inoperable, due to ‘high internal costs that couldn’t reasonably be recouped in a fully open-access model.’ Springer Nature claims that it costs between ‘€10,000–30,000’ to publish a single article in one of their journals, due to its highly selective nature. It is worth noting here that these publishers receive their research and editing labours for free from academics. Given that arXiv estimates hosting costs for a pre-print cost ‘$10 per article’ , these claims would appear to be exaggerated. As large publishers of STEM journals traditionally report the extravagantly high profits noted earlier, Robert-Jan Smits (Plan S) may be right in his assertion that these commercial publishers ‘should come up with new business models.’ Given the kickback from publishers and the ambitiously short timeframe for Plan S, it remains to be seen how effective it will be in enforcing open access in academic publishing.

Not content to wait for methods like the above to take effect, some academics take commitment to open access to more extreme levels. Alexandra Elbakyan, one Kazakhstani graduate student, founded a research piracy website named Sci-Hub in 2011. By simply inputting a DOI number into Sci-Hub, virtually any academic article can be instantly and easily retrieved for browsing, free of charge. Views on Elbakyan and Sci-Hub consequently remain harshly divided; with Elbakyan typically considered either a champion of open-access, or a criminal. What is certain is that Sci-Hub provides access to millions of research papers at no cost by utilising unrevealed institutional access codes. Elbakyan claims that her credentials have been ‘donated’ , but allegations of phishing have yet to be disproved. Their methods of access are certainly ethically dubious from a copyright perspective, and in terms of privacy and security.
Regardless, it is clear that Sci-Hub is growing in popularity. In 2016, Science’s John Bohannon worked with Elbakyan to create a dataset charting Sci-Hub’s usage. The results showed that Sci-Hub hosts ‘50 million papers and counting,’ and that, between Sept 2015 and Feb 2016, ‘Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents.’ For those with financial limitations, be they universities, members of the public or academics, Sci-Hub has a huge impact. Its reach extends beyond merely providing access to research papers, however; Scholarly Kitchen alleged that ‘[f]or a librarian, Sci-Hub is an unacknowledged reserve army prepared to enter the battle with publishers.’ Open access can be slow to progress and projects like Plan S can be objected to, but pirate sites like Sci-Hub are tenacious. Despite being shut down multiple times, it has simply reopened at a new domain, and continues to pick up the slack in providing universal access. Writing for Nature, Holly Else warns ‘without Sci-Hub the researchers would be screaming at the libraries and state agencies not to cut them off.’ For libraries, this new source of research dissemination strengthens their positions when bargaining with publishing giants like Elsevier. Yet Sci-Hub creates as many issues as it solves, raising important questions about ethics and copyright infringement. For example, can a librarian ethically make their users aware of a pirate website, even if the research downloaded was originally funded using that taxpayer’s own money? More practical issues also plague librarians; for example, what is Sci-Hub’s preservation policy? Can they be relied upon to archive the records of scholarly communications, especially when the website is frequently taken down due to legal action?

For publishers, Sci-Hub unsurprisingly poses a threat. Bohannon’s dataset showed that ‘Sci-Hub provided half-a-million downloads of Elsevier papers in one recent week.’ Furthermore, ‘some of the most intense use of Sci-Hub appears to be happening on the campuses of U.S. and European universities.’ What is particularly shocking is that these are users that most likely are not lacking access; but are simply choosing to use Sci-Hub’s services regardless. This has huge implications for research dissemination, suggesting Sci-Hub’s users actually prefer its simple interface to other more complex access options, even over their own libraries’. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that Sci-Hub also hosts ‘4000 different papers from PLOS’s various open-access journals,’ which are frequently accessed. In-depth studies like Himmelstein et al.’s ‘Sci-Hub provides access to nearly all scholarly literature’ reveal that Sci-Hub provides access to ‘85.1% of articles’ published in paywalled journals. Their data shows that Sci-Hub’s repository is growing in size per annum, and they are gradually pirating ever higher percentages. Larivière, in a recent press release about ‘The Oligopoly of Digital Publishing’, said that, as publishers have questionable levels of ‘real added value,’ that it is also ‘questionable whether they are still necessary in today’s digital era.’

It seems Scholarly Kitchen’s Joseph Esposito was right to warn of current developments as posing ‘a disruption to the entire ecosystem’ of academia and publishing. The adoption of the internet and digital dissemination has moved scholarly communications beyond the realm of print and brought new, varied forms of resources. Digital resources reinvented the way libraries and information services can offer content to their users, as online access means decentralised resources that can be used in any location. It also means that libraries can offer more resources regardless of limitations to physical space. Publishers also initially benefitted from the growth of the internet, and strategies like the Big Deal saw them reap remarkably high profit margins, much to the detriment of academic libraries. Due to this, publishers incur growing frustration from many academics and information services regarding the impediment they cause to open access and the limitations they place on scholarly communications and research dissemination. This frustration is resulting in the introduction of projects like Plan S, and pirate websites like Sci-Hub, which threaten to seriously disrupt the status quo of academic publishing. These developments may even see the eventual disintegration of these commercial publishers if they cannot adapt to the new environment.


Fig. 1: The cost of publishing: journal prices and cost breakdown
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About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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