Academic Publishing: Making Knowledge (Un)Commons

August 18, 2021 10:20 am || By

This article explores the dynamics of academic publishing, specifically academic journal publishing. The argument mainly stems from the positionality of knowledge as commons. The structure is as follows. First, illustrating the condition of academic publishing as it exists. Second, describing the political economy of academic publishing as it relates to its publishing, distribution, and production—academic labor. And third, modestly reiterating the grounds for knowledge as commons and its potentiality.

Whether you are an undergraduate, master, or doctoral student, in either STEM or the humanities, chances are you will be reading research published in academic journals owned by the Big Five: Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and SAGE.[1] Collectively across all fields of study, they control around 50 percent of all journals. In other fields such as the social sciences, their domination rose to 70 percent. This oligopoly translates into massive amounts of profit and profit margins. For example, in 2017, Elsevier reported profits of £724m on just £2bn revenue, a 36 percent margin—larger than Apple, Google, or Amazon.[2]

Being a rather niche market—mainly being consumed by academics—one might be surprised by the obscene amounts of money that this industry makes. However, Larivière, Haustein, and Mongeon explain it is due to high fixed and low variable costs.[3] They note that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of expenditure institutions must pay to access these journals. But the fact that some well-endowed institutions have had to reconsider or even cancel their subscription is telling.[4]

Producing academic journals comprise of manuscript preparation, selection and reviewing, copy-editing and layout, editorials, marketing, and salaries and rent. The two primary goods, the manuscript and review, are provided for free by scholars. In part because it has never been in the model of academic publishing—since 1665—to pay authors and because it is regarded as part of their academic labor. Their incentive is scientific development, prestige, exposure, and tenure.

Therefore, academia—not the academics per se—is also part of the problem. Puehringer, Rath, and Griesebner posit that the incentive structure in academia (re)produces the political economy of academic publishing.[5] On the one hand, a career and its progression in academia are grounded in researchers publishing in high-impact factor journals—usually published by the Big Five, known in academic circles as “publish or perish”. And on the other hand, this model enhances the power differential that holds academic institutions for ransom.

To summarize, the economy of academic publishing is as follows. Public funds are funneled to academic institutions—research centers, universities, etcetera. Researchers use this to fund their research, followed by writing and reviewing this research for free. Then, the publishers sell back the product to the publicly funded institutions. One The Guardian article calls it as daylight robbery.[6]

When researchers started to advocate for legislation to make publicly funded projects available for public access, policymakers’ general response was disbelief. “You mean the public doesn’t already have access to this.”[7] Publishers are also not standing around seeing their business model being criticized. Instead, they lobby policymakers to not or reverse decisions that make public access possible.[8] They also lobby professors and offer them a position as reviewing editors within the publisher’s payroll to try and keep the status quo from within academic circles.[9]

There are other models, alternatives to publishing in journals own by commercial publishers. For example, authors can choose to publish in digital-only ‘open access’ journals where readers are free to (download) read and share their scientific work. In fact, some institutions encourage or make it mandatory for research that they fund to publish in open access.[10] But, open access is not a panacea. Some journals require payment upfront to cover overhead expenses in the form of article processing charges. Some authors pay them individually, usually covered by institutions. Hence, everyone is privileged enough to go all-in on this model.

Another option is to use less-than-legal—but not entirely unethical—services such as Sci-hub and Library Genesis, which archive, host, and provide access to journal articles and books, respectively, for free. Some call them pirate websites, shadow libraries, or lifesavers.[11] Their users are mainly researchers and students from the Global South and other institutions that do not have the funds for subscription fees and expensive books.[12] Or the general population that does not have access to well-funded libraries and cannot justify the costs of these academic works.

These examples can be surmised as attempts to prefigure knowledge commons. In their introductory chapter, Hess and Ostrom look at knowledge commons as a resource shared by a group of people and is subjected to social dilemmas.[13] In other words, they attempt to illustrate how knowledge can be shared in a system constituted by social institutions and conventions. Central to Hess and Ostrom’s argument is how internet users after 1995 understand knowledge as a shared resource.[14]

Knowledge as a resource for Hess and Ostrom needs to be understood as a public good.[15] They are non-excludable: knowledge is meant to be read and shared. It is not meant to be kept away from the public eye. And it is difficult to exclude people from knowledge once it is discovered. Knowledge is non-rivalrous: one person’s use of knowledge does not subtract from another person’s capacity to use it

, especially in a digital environment where publishing and distribution costs have dropped to zero, but closer than ever before.[16] Knowledge is more non-excludable and non-rivalrous than ever. Before the digital era, where publishers still do the bulk of the printing and distribution, perhaps they can justify their fees because these works are costly.[17] But now, journals can be archived and shared ad infinitum.

This idea of knowledge is also not limited to academic works or research. It also refers to creative works, indigenous knowledge, etcetera. Hence, a further reiteration for knowledge as commons is twofold.[18] First, knowledge is a cumulative and its effect is a public good. The access to knowledge now will result in the discovery of future knowledge. More knowledge available, more knowledge to be unearthed. Second, configuring knowledge as commons can help deconstruct knowledge as being an exclusive domain of academia. The freedom to both access and create knowledge should be available to all.

In conclusion, I have illustrated how the current structure of academic publishing is one that exploits academic labor in pursuit of profit accumulation. And that the incentive structure of academia (re)produces the political economy that provides academic publishers their asymmetric power relations in the face of academic institutions. That academic publisher will do what they must to maintain the status quo. But there are alternatives to the commercial publishing models such as open access—although imperfect. Finally, I have established the argument and potentials for knowledge as commons. To continue to stifle knowledge is to risk a left turn on copyright.

Author: Alfredo
Editor: Amelinda Pandu Kusumaningtyas


[1] MacDonald, F. (2015) These Five Companies Control More Than Half of Academic Publishing, ScienceAlert. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/these-five-companies-control-more-than-half-of-academic-publishing (Accessed: 1 July 2021).

[2] Buranyi, S. (2017) Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?, the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science (Accessed: 1 July 2021).

[3] Larivière, V., Haustein, S. and Mongeon, P. (2015) ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLOS ONE. Edited by W. Glanzel, 10(6), pp. 10-12. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127502.

[4] Gaind, N. (2019) ‘Huge US university cancels subscription with Elsevier’, Nature, 567(7746), pp. 15–16. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00758-x.

[5] Puehringer, S., Rath, J. and Griesebner, T. (2021) ‘The political economy of academic publishing: On the commodification of a public good’, PLOS ONE. Edited by X. Y. Yang, 16(6), p. 4. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0253226.

[6] Monbiot, G. (2018) Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free | George Monbiot, the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/13/scientific-publishing-rip-off-taxpayers-fund-research (Accessed: 1 July 2021).

[7] Schmitt, J. (2018) Paywall: The Business of Scholarship. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM_nWsdbNvQ (Accessed: 1 July 2021).

[8] Dyer, O. (2019) ‘Academic publishers urge Trump not to demand open access for federally funded research’, BMJ, p. l7064. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l7064.

[9] Germani, F. (2019) The Scientific Publishing Lobby: Why Science Does Not Work, Culturico. Available at: https://culturico.com/2019/05/06/the-scientific-publishing-lobby-why-science-does-not-work/ (Accessed: 14 July 2021).

[10] McDowell, Z. J. (2018) ‘Disrupting Academic Publishing: Questions of Access in a Digital Environment’, Media Practice and Education, 19(1), p. 61. doi: 10.1080/14682753.2017.1362173.

[11] See Bodó, B. (2016) ‘Libraries in the post-scarcity era’, in Porsdam, H. (ed.) Copyrighting Creativity: Creative Values, Cultural Heritage Institutions and Systems of Intellectual Property. London: Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=4541948 (Accessed: 15 July 2021).

[12] See Banks, M. (2016) ‘What Sci-Hub Is and Why It Matters’, American Libraries, 47(6), pp. 46–49.

[13] Hess, C. and Ostrom, E. (2007) ‘Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons’, in Hess, C. and Ostrom, E. (eds) Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 3.

[14] Hess and Ostrom, 2007, p. 4.

[15] Hess and Ostrom, 2007, pp. 8-9.

[16] McDowell, 2018, p. 59.

[17] Larivière, Haustein and Mongeon, 2015, p. 12.

[18] Hess and Ostrom, 2007, p. 8.