The open access wars: How to free science from academic paywalls - Vox
That’s because in February, the UC system — one of the country’s largest academic institutions, encompassing Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, and several other campuses — dropped its nearly $11 million annual subscription to Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of academic journals.
On the face of it, this seemed like an odd move. Why cut off students and researchers from academic research?
In fact, it was a principled stance that may herald a revolution in the way science is shared around the world.
The University of California decided it doesn’t want scientific knowledge locked behind paywalls, and thinks the cost of academic publishing has gotten out of control.
Elsevier owns around 3,000 academic journals, and its articles account for some 18 percent of all the world’s research output. “They’re a monopolist, and they act like a monopolist,” says Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, head of the campus libraries at UC Berkeley and co-chair of the team that negotiated with the publisher. Elsevier makes huge profits on its journals, generating billions of dollars a year for its parent company RELX .
This is a story about more than subscription fees. It’s about how a private industry has come to dominate the institutions of science, and how librarians, academics, and even pirates are trying to regain control.
In 2018, Elsevier’s revenue grew by 2 percent, to a total of $3.2 billion. Gemma Hersh, a senior vice president for global policy at Elsevier, says the company’s net profit margin was 19 percent (more than double the net profit of Netflix).
When the internet arrived, electronic PDFs became the main medium through which articles were disseminated. At that point, “librarians were optimistic this was going to be the solution; at last, journals are going to become much, much cheaper,” Fyfe says.
But instead of adopting a new business and pricing model to match the new means of no-cost dissemination, consolidation gave academic publishers the freedom to raise prices. Starting in the late 1990s, publishers increasingly pushed sales of their subscriptions into large bundled deals. In this model, universities pay a hefty price to get a huge subset of a publisher’s journals, instead of purchasing individual titles
But critics, including open access crusaders, think the business model is due for a change. “I think we’re nearing the tipping point, and the industry is going to change, just like the industry for recorded music has changed, the industry for movies has changed,” MacKie-Mason says. “[The publishers] know it’s going to happen. They just want to protect their profits and their business model as long as they can.”❞