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Are Scientific Publishers Getting Too Powerful?

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Caroline Reid

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clockJun 11 2015, 23:19 UTC
468 Are Scientific Publishers Getting Too Powerful?
Library books by faungg's photos via Flickr

Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage. Whether you recognize some, all, or none of these names, they are a big deal in the scientific publishing community. The real question: Are they becoming too much of a big deal?

A paper, published in the journal PLoS One, reports that the five aforementioned publishing giants account for over 50% of the papers published in 2013 for both 'natural and medical sciences' (NMS) and 'social sciences and humanities' (SSH). The data came from 45 million documents on the Web of Science.

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You might shrug your shoulders and say, "So what?" Publishers perform a valuable task: they manage typesetting, printing and distribution of papers while letting the busy scientists get on with their next experiment. However, the danger is that when one house gets too powerful, they effectively control what information the public does, or doesn't, see. 

The research disciplines are not all equally affected. Over 70% of the chemistry papers are published by one of the big five, whereas less than 40% of physics papers are. This could be due to the variety of free pre-publishing services that exist for physics, for example arXiv. There isn't much room for a paid-for publishing house. 

The graph shows what percentage of academic papers for various disciplines was published by one of the big five publishers in 2013 / PLoS One: "The Oligopoly of Publishers"

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Physics aside, it's difficult for researchers to side-step the publishing houses. It's a tragic paradox: The more prestigious a publisher becomes, the more scientists want to publish in their journal, which in turn makes them gain more prestige...You see the picture. Prestigious publishing houses attract new scientists who are eager to improve their reputation and long-time scientists who want to maintain a good name.

On top of this, big publishing houses charge large fees for subscriptions and viewing articles. Fortunately, the scientific community doesn't have a reputation for staying quiet about wanting free information. You may have heard of the "Cost of Knowledge" campaign, which encouraged scientists to boycott Elsevier due to their high subscription costs. Around 15,000 researchers agreed to not publish in, review, or edit Elsevier journals.

In addition, to avoid wasting money, some universities will subscribe to a publisher's entire 'bundle' of journals, which often include many journals the universities don't want or need. 

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This new data calls into question whether a handful of big corporations deserve so much power over the scientific community. And if not, how can we make the transition to smaller publishers more appealing?

[Via PLOS]

[Image via Library books by faungg's photos via Flickr]


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