In January 2016, Optometry and Vision Science became an online-only journal accessible through the publisher's website: https://journals.lww.com/optvissci/pages/default.aspx. Since then, we have faced all the usual and expected challenges associated with digital publishing: mourning the loss of the familiar print version, exploring new models to support the business of publishing, and finding new ways to make the journal's content discoverable and easily accessible. The focus of this editorial is to share some recent developments at the intersection of academic publishing and federal policy that have the potential to further transform scholarly publishing by fundamentally disrupting current business models of academic publishing.
Modern scientific publishing (and publishing content in any form) has been changed forever by the Internet. Some of the earliest and most simple changes created dual access to both print and electronic formats. However, the ability to track and measure website traffic, page views, and specific user interactions was the genesis of new business paradigms. When these content usage measures were combined with online advertising, all print media formats that traditionally relied on advertising revenues were fundamentally disrupted. Advertisers seeking measurable returns on their investments sought new ways to deliver their message to consumers that could be better targeted to a more specific audience, tracked in greater detail, and related more directly to business goals. Google and Facebook have established a dominant presence in this world of digital advertising, owning the largest shares (37 and 22%, respectively) of the $129.34 billion U.S. ad business market in 2019. It is pretty clear where the advertising dollars have gone, and it is also clear that this loss has been detrimental to some scientific publishers.
Elsevier is the largest publisher of scientific journals, owning more than 2500 different titles that published almost 500,000 individual articles in 2015. To adapt to the changing business climate, Elsevier expanded their business lines to include analytics, education, media, and other forms of information retrieval and decision support. Elsevier, along with other leading scientific publishers (Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Sage), has continued to enjoy profit margins eclipsing Apple, Google, Netflix, and other leading businesses. If the loss of advertising revenues in academic publishing has not harmed the largest publishers, then who has lost and where is the disruption? Historically (20 years ago), most business models in academic publishing included revenue from subscriptions to institutions and individuals. Libraries, research institutions, private industries, and others would pay for access to content. In digital publishing, subscriptions no longer require the considerable infrastructure required for physical production and distribution. The subsidiary industries of markup, layout, boxing, and shipping have given way to software, programmers, servers, and paywalls.
In 2009, the U.S. federal government began requiring that the published results of all research funded by federal research grants were made publicly available. PubMed Central was born and has become a major public repository of scientific research results. Likewise, new publishing models were launched to further support the philosophy of open science; for example, the open access publisher PLOS One was launched in October 2008 as a peer-reviewed open access journal. For-profit publishers developed embargo periods to protect existing business models, making open access content freely available only after a 12-month delay. Many journals now use a hybrid open access model whereby authors can pay fees to allow immediate open access to their article, whereas the remainder of journal content remains behind a paywall. As the proportion of open access content in a journal increases, the value of a subscription declines. Under hybrid open access models, authors affiliated with research institutions who produce research papers pay to publish content (often with funds from research grants), and then their institutions must also pay subscription fees for library access to content.
In 2019, the University of California system unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with Elsevier to reduce the costs for authors to publish their work and for campus libraries to access their published content. On April 10, 2019, the University of California and Cambridge University Press agreed to an open access publishing deal, ending their relationship with Elsevier and further promoting the ideals of open scientific publishing. Similar negotiations have happened with the German and Dutch governments, and other academic institutions in the United States are likely to follow suit. The current financial models and incentives are in turmoil and providing some real disincentives to the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge that is often funded by the public.
In late December 2019, the White House began communicating about the possibility of an executive order that would further increase public access to federally funded research. The order would require immediate open access for all federally funded research, adding further chaos to existing confusion around scientific publishing business models. Most likely, authors would face higher charges from publishers to publish their articles. Smaller society publishers (like the American Academy of Optometry) would be forced to make significant changes to their business models to make up for lost income from subscriptions. Of course, publishers will be threatened financially by this proposed policy and have made their interests and concerns very clear. This will add yet another layer of confusion to the world of scientific publishing.
Unfortunately, sanity, clarity, and insight about the future of academic publishing are hard to come by—the future is highly uncertain. If I had to say which way the momentum is shifting, it is toward open access and a more binary division between very large and small publishers, with fewer midsize publishers. That probably means there will be some additional industry consolidation and possible acquisitions. Journals affiliated with academic societies will be pressured to find sufficient subscription or other revenue to support their journals. Alternatively, author charges or some viable mix of subscription and page charge revenues will sustain them. Publishers will be increasingly pressured to serve the interests of authors as well as the interests of their funding agencies. The prospect of 38% annual profits is likely gone, and publishers will be pushed to further innovate in how they produce, distribute, and market scientific knowledge to maintain their relevance and market share. It would be interesting if scientific articles were treated like digital music. If a unifying force were capable of bringing the biggest publishing houses to the table to negotiate reasonable fees for libraries, authors, and the broader public, this could truly transform the world's access to scientific knowledge.