Open Access for All

Private corporations dominate academic publishing field

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Illustration by Darin Connolly

Researchers spend months, often years, developing their work before sharing their findings with the world. Once they go through a publication company they often lose the rights to their research. Readers must pay to read their work and the researchers still don’t make a profit. It’s an unfair norm in the world of academia.   

Scholarly publishing is a $25 billion industry spearheaded by five major publication companies, including recent headline-maker Elsevier. After months of negotiation, the UC terminated its contract with Elsevier on Feb. 28, making the UC the largest U.S. academic institution to break ties with the publishing mogul. 

Negotiations centered around lowering the subscription price, and pushing for universal free access to UC authors’ published articles. Elsevier made it clear this was not an option, and the UC severed ties with the company.

However, what may be seen as a victory for open access does little to put a hole in Elsevier’s pockets. The company makes about $3 billion annually — a towering amount compared to the over $10 million a year Elsevier will no longer receive from the UC. 

The UC breaking from Elsevier was a good step in stirring talks of open access, but one institution is not enough to bring about change. More universities and institutions tied to major publication companies must push for free access of articles and research — and make it clear these corporations will lose business if they don’t concede.

Relying on large publication companies in the production of academic journals has not always been a course of action and does not need to be. For-profit publishers didn’t start producing journals until the 1970s. Before then, academic journals were usually published by universities or academic societies. 

Journals’ elitist barriers are a global issue too. Compared to U.S. and European countries, researchers in developing countries have less access to mainstream journals, and it is more difficult for them to get their work published in these journals. 

In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the importance of access to the latest medical research for developing countries. As a result, the WHO created the Hinari Initiative to provide research to developing countries. Currently, Hinari provides over 15,000 journals in biomedical and health literature for low- and middle-income countries.

But 19 years after the announcement from WHO, over half of academic journals in the world are still owned by select publishing companies. The five corporations controlling the realm of academic publishing — Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Sage — are all based in either the United Kingdom or the U.S. 

These U.S. and European companies dominate the journal field and continue to profit off others’ works. Their absurd prices prevent relevant and necessary information from spreading to countries that may need it most. In addition, researchers are met with steep publication prices that are unaffordable in developing countries. Prevalent research is needed to sustain scientific and medical fields in countries throughout the world, whether they are developed or developing. Knowledge cannot and should not be owned by private corporations. 

Universities and institutions must boycott these major publication companies and push for open access. The world deserves equal access to knowledge, and that means getting rid of the corporations whose only intention is to make a profit.