STM Publishing and the Rising Threat of Open Access Journals

STM publishing industryScientific, technical, and medical (STM) publishing exceeds $25 billion annually, and its leading competitors consistently post adjusted profit margins that exceed 30%, according to our research at Simba Information. 

However, these same STM publishers are facing disruption in the face of a movement to create open access to the scholarly research they publish. 

The Open Access Movement

Most scientists or researchers who are funded by government institutes (like the National Institutes of Health) or private foundations (like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) are now required as a condition of their grant to not only publish their research in a peer reviewed journal, but also make sure that the resulting paper is made freely available on the internet. 

Publishers, whose preferred model is to sell large subscription journal packages to libraries and to lock individual articles behind paywalls, adjusted their policies to allow individual articles to be made open access if the author or their funder pays an upfront fee known as an Article Processing Charge (APC). 

This created a parallel publishing system that is growing, but—much to the chagrin of the most ardent open access advocates—has not destroyed the subscription publishing model. 

Now the European Union is pushing for a new set of restrictions known as Plan S that will prohibit researchers from publishing in subscription journals. 

Plan S and the Growing Pressures on Elsevier 

Subsequently, over the past months a number of renowned journals have cloned their titles as a way of preserving their most prestigious subscription journals and still providing avenues for Plan S-restricted research to be published. A first example was Elsevier’s journal Water Research, which overnight created a mirror open access journal, Water Research X, with the exact same editorial board. 

Elsevier, the leading STM journal publisher, has signaled willingness to make broader changes to protect its subscription journals business. Reports suggest Elsevier is now willing to pay its volunteer editors in order to keep them from resigning from their posts at subscription journals. Elsevier “employs” somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 editors at approximately 2,500 journals. 

The move seems to signal that Elsevier is threatened by the prospect of mass editor resignations. The company fears that individual editors and editorial boards have the power to do what funders and policy makers have not been able to do thus far—flip the most prestigious journals in every field to 100% open access model. 

In 2015, the editorial board at Elsevier’s linguistics journal, Lingua, resigned en masse and re-emerged in 2016 as the editors and editorial board of Glossa, an open-access journal published by Ubiquity Press. Elsevier continues to publish Lingua as a hybrid journal with a new editorial team. The two journals compete head-to-head, but now Plan S rules would restrict and eventually phase out EU-funded authors from being able to publish in Lingua at all.

Elsevier is reportedly facing open access ultimatums from journal editorial boards in other fields, and is offering the prospect of compensation as a means to quell the rebellion.

Simba Information’s Professional Group will continue to monitor these developments, as 2019 promises to be an interesting year in the push for open access to STM research.

Where to Learn More

Open Access MovementFor more information, see the 65-page report Open Access Journal Publishing 2018-2022 by Simba Information, a leading authority for market intelligence and forecasts on the professional publishing industry.

This report explains the origins of the open access movement, gives a timeline for its development, but most importantly, Simba Information quantifies open access' position as a fast-growing subsegment of scholarly journal publishing.


About the author: Dan Strempel is a Senior Analyst at Simba Information, where he has authored more than 25 studies over the past 13 years. His research has been cited in numerous publications including CNBC, Newsweek, Publishing Executive, The Association of American Publishers, and The Society for Scholarly Publishing. You can follow Dan on Twitter, where he shares industry news and analysis.

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