In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of $1.16 billion on $3.2 billion in revenue- a margin of 36%- higher than Apple, Google or Amazon posted that year. In the years that followed, profits and margins have continued to increase, despite scientists experimenting with sharing their work freely online. In 2015, a Financial Times article anointed Elsevier “the business the internet could not kill”.
Their model is stunning to outsiders. In a nutshell:
Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.
Scientists are generally unhappy with this arrangement, aware that they seem to be getting a bad deal. However, even scientists who are fighting for reform are often not aware of the roots of the system, a story retold as The Long Read in today’s Guardian. Changing this system will require a nuanced understanding of how we got here, and a major shift in the practice of science as it is stands today.