The Wages of Sin

Scrooge McDuck

The Times Higher reports stockholder relief. The fears of investors in pre-eminent parasites Reed Elsevier – that profits would be undermined by the move to academic open access – have been dissipated. Normal business is more-or-less resumed, thanks to the rise of hybrid publication models in the UK. That is, the combination between pay-to-publish that makes journal articles immediately available to all on the one hand and repositories for drafts and embargoed versions which preserve library subscription income on the other. In 2011, says the report [1], it looked like the push for widespread and substantial open access (rather than the soft version we’ve ended up with) might undermine the kind of market dominance that produces operating profits of 32%. Indeed, they expected Elsevier’s profit margins to fall by over a fifth in the face of full open access. But by September this year share prices were outperforming expectations.

The analysts write revealingly about the threat: “political intervention both in Europe and the US would force a shift to full Open Access journals, with negative consequences on the economics of Elsevier”. Revealing, too, on the concessions made to corporate publishers and divergent national policies. Despite more than a decade of agitation, debate, and now government mandates, “the rise of Open Access appears to inflict little or no damage on leading subscription publishers” for reasons that are obvious enough, should we care to notice them. Embargo periods and other restrictions protect profits, and so subscription levels remain high. Moreover, this manifestation of openness “may in fact be adding to profits”, because double dipping people.

The new reality is that we have two mutually reinforcing business models. Publishers can now add those Article Processing Charges (APCs) – many of which will be funded by the public purse – to their already bountiful subscription income. Unsurprising, then, that the stock performance of Reed Elsevier and Wiley continues to a grow at a neat pace. The future risk – so far as there is one – comes not from a revolution in publishing, but from library funding shortfalls caused by potential trouble in the economy at large.

Elsevier Profits 2011-2014

Source: Berstein Research, ‘Reed Elsevier: Goodbye to Berlin’, 24 September 2014

So open access is growing “in theory” but not in substance, which is to say, not in a way that realigns academic publishing. Continue reading