‘Universities are too dependent on commercial publishers’

‘Universities are too dependent on commercial publishers’

Scientific publications are commodities. And the surfing behavior of scientists is also a source of income for publishers these days. Universities are too dependent on these commercial parties, Juliëtte Schaafsma believes. This must and can be changed, she argues in the new episode of Univers Audio.

Image: Sora Shimazaki / Pexels

A baker mixes flour, yeast, and water and bakes bread. The loaves end up on the shelves and the customer pays for them. It is a textbook example of an economic transaction. If only at school, academics had paid better attention, because how different things are at universities. A scientist invents research questions and methodologies, sets up studies, writes articles about them, and checks those of colleagues for their quality. But every euro earned from all that work ends up in other people’s pockets.


“Scientific publishing has become a commodity,” says Professor of Cultures in Interaction Juliëtte Schaafsma in the new episode of the podcast Univers Audio. “Publishers have become big and rich publishing lots of journals, with very little cost to them.” That’s not just the world upside down. It also means that commercial parties pocket large amounts of taxpayer money because the government funds universities.

For a long time, the general public could not even read scientific journals. Articles were behind the familiar pay wall. Only in recent years has this changed. The open access movement (in Dutch) driven by the government, got underway a decade ago. The idea is that publicly funded research should also be publicly accessible. It took a lot of negotiations with publishers such as Elsevier to get this done. And the results of those consultations have been somewhat unsatisfactory, to say the least.

Earnings models of publishers

“Publishers are among the most profitable companies on the planet. They are not going to give up their revenue model overnight.” And they haven’t. Universities still have to take out expensive subscriptions to all those journals. Indeed, scientists pay “thousands of euros” to publish their work in a journal to compensate publishers for making their work openly accessible. “A lot of money still goes to publishers,” Schaafsma says. And not all publications are accessible.

Moreover, publishers have already found new revenue models. There is also money to be made from the research infrastructure of universities. Software such as Mendeley for scientific sources and Pure for publications is in the hands of commercial publishers. “What you download, what you read, how long you take, what topics are of interest to you.” A mountain of data is amassed and sold back to universities. Schaafsma thinks it is not only a perverse revenue model but also fears that this data will one day be resold.

Setting up a database

It is not too late to turn the tide, Schaafsma believes. Universities, she believes, could take more of the research infrastructure into their own hands. Publish books themselves (in Dutch), jointly set up a database with all universities to include publications in an accessible way. “It requires quite an investment,” says the professor, but the alternative is that universities sell themselves short even more. “You shouldn’t want that.”

Do you want to know more about publishers and their revenue models, and exactly how universities have become dependent on them? Listen to the podcast (in Dutch).

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel


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