Yes, the "Oligopoly" of For-Profit Science Journals is Growing

June 17, 2015

Some environmental reporters find or research stories by browsing science journals — there are many science journals that cover environmental topics. But difficulty of access to those journals is a common barrier to robust, science-based journalism. The barriers have been getting worse.

How do we know it's worse? Now we have a full-blown study in a science journal that says so.

The business model that had developed over decades for science journals is to sell expensive subscriptions to university research libraries. In the digital age, it became possible to buy a copy of an individual article for a fee — typically around $20. That makes casual browsing by reporters hard unless they are lucky enough to have privileges at a research library.

During the past decade or so, an "open source" movement has arisen. Its premise is that results of taxpayer-funded research (that's a big fraction of the total) should be available for the public to read for free.

But that positive development has been offset by the tightening grip of the commercial publishers who publish many scientific journals. Decades ago, many of those journals were published by universities and scientific societies in pursuit of their goals. But publishing costs grow, academic budgets shrink and academic institutions have contracted out the production and distribution of journals to commercial firms.

A new academic study finds that those publishing companies are concentrating ownership of journals in the hands of fewer firms — thus raising the economic power of the few who dominate the industry. The study, "The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era," was published in PLoS One.

After analyzing some 45 million articles published between 1973 and 2013, the authors concluded that the top five publishers increased their share of the total market to over 50 percent by 2013.

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