Scholarly publishing needs regulation

Essay by Jean-Claude Burgelman: “The world of scientific communication has changed significantly over the past 12 months. Understandably, the amazing mobilisation of research and scholarly publishing in an effort to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 and find a vaccine has overshadowed everything else. But two other less-noticed events could also have profound implications for the industry and the researchers who rely on it.

On 10 January 2020, Taylor and Francis announced its acquisition of one of the most innovative small open-access publishers, F1000 Research. A year later, on 5 January 2021, another of the big commercial scholarly publishers, Wiley, paid nearly $300 million for Hindawi, a significant open-access publisher in London.

These acquisitions come alongside rapid change in publishers’ functions and business models. Scientific publishing is no longer only about publishing articles. It’s a knowledge industry—and it’s increasingly clear it needs to be regulated like one.

The two giant incumbents, Springer Nature and Elsevier, are already a long way down the road to open access, and have built up impressive in-house capacity. But Wiley, and Taylor and Francis, had not. That’s why they decided to buy young open-access publishers. Buying up a smaller, innovative competitor is a well-established way for an incumbent in any industry to expand its reach, gain the ability to do new things and reinvent its business model—it’s why Facebook bought WhatsApp and Instagram, for example.

New regulatory approach

To understand why this dynamic demands a new regulatory approach in scientific publishing, we need to set such acquisitions alongside a broader perspective of the business’s transformation into a knowledge industry. 

Monopolies, cartels and oligopolies in any industry are a cause for concern. By reducing competition, they stifle innovation and push up prices. But for science, the implications of such a course are particularly worrying. 

Science is a common good. Its products—and especially its spillovers, the insights and applications that cannot be monopolised—are vital to our knowledge societies. This means that having four companies control the worldwide production of car tyres, as they do, has very different implications to an oligopoly in the distribution of scientific outputs. The latter situation would give the incumbents a tight grip on the supply of knowledge.

Scientific publishing is not yet a monopoly, but Europe at least is witnessing the emergence of an oligopoly, in the shape of Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, and Taylor and Francis. The past year’s acquisitions have left only two significant independent players in open-access publishing—Frontiers and MDPI, both based in Switzerland….(More)”.