Academic journals adopt new business models
Reduced university subsidies and digital competition threaten their survival
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
The explosive growth of academic research and the need of researchers to publish their findings have contributed to a financial crisis in the ecosystem of academic publishers.
The causes and solutions were debated during an online roundtable sponsored by Spain-based CRECS (International conference of journals of social sciences and the humanities). It was moderated by Rafael Repiso, professor at the Universidad Internacional de la Rioja in Spain (link to the video here, in Spanish).
Repiso opened the conversation by saying that the topic of sustainability of these journals has not been researched much. Their business model for decades before the digital revolution was generally to receive subsidies from universities or research organizations.
The four participants in the discussion represented different journals and funding models, from the for-profit to the completely free. But they all agreed that the digitization of media has changed everything.
Tomàs Baiget, editor of El Profesional de la información (the Information Professional), Spain
Juan Aréchaga, editor of the International Journal of Developmental Biology, Spain
María Boixadera, coordinator of editorial services, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (the Open University of Catalonia, UOC), Spain
Silvio R. Waisbord, professor, George Washington University, US, ex-editor of both Journal of Communication and International Journal of Press/Politics
Baiget, editor of El Profesional de la información, opened the discussion by saying small, specialized independent journals like his own have suffered as libraries either buy fewer subscriptions or share them.
In addition, these journals have several “enemies”. Among them, he said, are big publishing houses that have the ability to make national deals with governments and universities and “megajournals”, which offer a subscription to hundreds of smaller journals and access to as many as 40,000 articles a year. In this system, Baiget said he can’t compete.
The number of subscribers to his journal declined from 600 in 2012 to just over 100 in 2021 (see chart). As a response, in 2015 he started charging authors to publish their articles, a practice known in the industry as APC, “article processing/publishing charge”. Baiget said this was the only way to maintain quality, given the huge increase in articles submitted to his journal, which is indexed on the prestigious Scopus and Web of Science.
Another survival strategy Baiget is testing is a product called Open Access Express. Researchers pay 2,200 euros, tax included, and receive:
Rapid publication of articles of up to 8,000 words
Pre-acceptance or rejection within seven days
Double-blind peer-review within four weeks (researchers often have to wait months for this)
Open access to the article
Publication in both Spanish and English, with translation cost included
In 10 months, they have received 10 articles submitted and have rejected six.
The Open University of Catalonia, based in Barcelona, offers free access to all its publications in keeping with its mission of sharing knowledge to improve society, according to its editorial coordinator, María Boixadera.
The graphic above shows the variation in university subsidy of its editorial arm over the years (blue line). Boixadera explained that costs vary when the university launches or closes a publication. Also, the university sometimes co-publishes or sponsors external journals.
The objective of their publishing arm, she said, is to share research with international impact and high editorial standards in collaboration with the leading institutions in each field of inquiry. At the same time, their financial goal is to achieve this in a financially sustainable way.
The for-profit model
Silvio R. Waisbord has not needed to worry as much about budgets as other members of the panel. From 2008 to 2014, he was editor of International Journal of Press/Politics, property of Sage Publishing, a for-profit publisher. Sage took care of all the costs except for an editorial assistant paid for by George Washington University, where Waisbord was teaching.
Waisbord had a similar experience when he was editor of Journal of Communication, owned by the International Association of Communication (ICA), a nonprofit organization. ICA has an agreement with the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Journal and handles all the commercial aspects.
Waisbord echoed Baiget in saying that the the new environment is difficult for new or specialized academic publications to achieve sustainability, particularly in Latin America.
The importance of copyright
Juan Aréchaga, editor of the International Journal of Developmental Biology, published in English by la Universidad del País Vasco, based in the Basque Country, denounced the “rampant piracy” in the digital world. He also lamented the proliferation of low-quality digital journals that publish “nonsense” and damage the credibility of serious research.
Aréchaga emphasized the financial importance of maintaining copyright protection. His publication generates revenue by syndicating its high-quality articles to publishing houses such as Wylie and Elsevier.
Pay to publish or pay to read?
Repiso, the moderator, observed that the debate could be reduced to the question, Who should pay for the high cost of research? (It’s similar to the dilemma in the journalism world: Who should pay for the cost of quality journalism, the users or the advertisers?).
“There are people who buy books and there are people who read in the library,” Repiso said. “The idea of possession is important for some people.”
Baiget suggested that those who benefit most from the publication of an article should pay: the authors or the institutions that receive funding for research. In both cases, publication enhances their reputation.
Boixadera argued that the principal and final beneficiary must be society. For that reason, universities have the responsability to develop sustainable models for sharing their knowledge.
This newsletter is based on a blog post on the author’s website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.