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Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

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  1. unknown user
    [...] [...]

    Maxwell’s success was built on an insight into the nature of scientific journals that would take others years to understand and replicate. While his competitors groused about him diluting the market, Maxwell knew that there was, in fact, no limit to the market. Creating The Journal of Nuclear Energy didn’t take business away from rival publisher North Holland’s journal Nuclear Physics. Scientific articles are about unique discoveries: one article cannot substitute for another. If a serious new journal appeared, scientists would simply request that their university library subscribe to that one as well. If Maxwell was creating three times as many journals as his competition, he would make three times more money.


    Scientists occasionally questioned the fairness of this hugely profitable business to which they supplied their work for free, but it was university librarians who first realised the trap in the market Maxwell had created. The librarians used university funds to buy journals on behalf of scientists. Maxwell was well aware of this. “Scientists are not as price-conscious as other professionals, mainly because they are not spending their own money,” he told his publication Global Business in a 1988 interview. And since there was no way to swap one journal for another, cheaper one, the result was, Maxwell continued, “a perpetual financing machine”. Librarians were locked into a series of thousands of tiny monopolies. There were now more than a million scientific articles being published a year, and they had to buy all of them at whatever price the publishers wanted.


    Those predicting Elsevier’s downfall had assumed scientists experimenting with sharing their work for free online could slowly outcompete Elsevier’s titles by replacing them one at a time. In response, Elsevier created a switch that fused Maxwell’s thousands of tiny monopolies into one so large that, like a basic resource – say water, or power – it was impossible for universities to do without. Pay, and the scientific lights stayed on, but refuse, and up to a quarter of the scientific literature would go dark at any one institution. It concentrated immense power in the hands of the largest publishers, and Elsevier’s profits began another steep rise that would lead them into the billions by the 2010s. In 2015, a Financial Times article anointed Elsevier “the business the internet could not kill”.

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