Scholarly Journals: A Modest Proposal

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Scholarly journal subscription costs continue to rise while strategies to increase open access aren't working. It's time for something new.

Scholarly Journals: A Modest Proposal
Credit: Arthimedes / © 2021

In March 2021, the University of California system and Elsevier, the world's largest academic publisher, signed an agreement that has been hailed as a "big deal" for open access (OA).Footnote1 The UC system has long been advocating for more OA for scholarly publications, including access unrestricted by subscription paywalls. The basic idea behind the agreement is that in addition to giving the UC system access to Elsevier's subscription-only journals, it permits UC authors to publish their own articles in Elsevier's subscription-based publications as OA. However, to allow this, the UC system pays Elsevier additional fees on top of subscription fees. This upfront expenditure—also called "pay-forward" or "read and publish" or article processing charge (APC)—is intended to cover Elsevier's publication costs, as well as the revenues lost through the relinquishment of paid access. It also continues to guarantee Elsevier a sizable profit. The UC-Elsevier agreement is not the only example of these new pay-forward contracts for more OA: several countries have signed similar contracts with Springer.

Do these contracts represent a step forward for OA? Are they transformative, as is often claimed? Or are they perpetuating the problem, moving farther away from true equitable access to research, unencumbered by paywall subscriptions, where the haves are not advantaged over the have-nots? Unencumbered access to scholarly output is no longer an issue only for idealistic researchers, disgruntled librarians, and financially hard-pressed colleges and universities. As the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated, free access to vetted research and facts is now more important than ever—for everyone.

Ever since 1994, when Stevan Harnad, a psychology professor, set forth his "subversive proposal" that research articles and reports be open and freely accessible on the Internet,Footnote2 scholarly publishing has been in a constant battle—sides drawn, with conflicting goals. On one side are those in the publishing industry, who believe they add real value to scholarly communication through the publication of peer-reviewed articles. From their perspective, they are partners in the process and should be rewarded for their efforts in the form of fees, subscriptions, and ownership of the intellectual property to which they add value. On the other side are the advocates of allowing scholarship to be open, free of the barriers of costs and access restrictions.

The OA goal set by Harnad seemed simple at the time; it was the next logical step in the Information Age. With information becoming easily distributed and shared electronically, why shouldn't scholarly communication be shared freely across the Internet? Shouldn't the fruits of academia, a supposed public good, be open and shared by all? After all, academics produce the research and articles. For the most part, academics also then pay publishers for access to their own articles. Even quality control in the form of peer review is done by academics. Given all this, why shouldn't those who produce the information have the prerogative to freely access and share it? Why should academia have to pay for what it creates? Why shouldn't members of the academic community simply use technology to take over the publication and distribution of what they produce? Turns out, this is much easier said than done.

The battle for OA is not just a battle for an ideal but is one of hard dollars and cents. Even before the calls for OA, the scholarly publishing industry was criticized for rapidly escalating the prices of journals. Much of this price escalation was due to the unique nature of the marketplace for scholarly works.Footnote3 As Richard Edwards and David Shulenburger pointed out early in the OA debate, the specific "product" in the journal market is one for which there is no substitute.Footnote4 Ironically, the Internet led to a greater consolidation of publishers and thus less competition, monopolistic publishing practices, and ever-greater subscription price increases. As journals moved from print to online, economies of scale made consolidation and "buy-outs" frequent occurrences. While publishers pitched consolidation as adding benefit for consumers by providing larger "packages" with access to more information, librarians and other campus administrators saw themselves being forced into very expensive and long-term "big deals" in a limited marketplace. The more academic publishing became consolidated around a few large conglomerates, the less options there were for libraries, and the more journal costs overall continued to rise.

Despite rising costs, open hostility to the practices (and pricing) of academic publishers, and OA advocacy movements, little has changed since the 1990s. Although there is widespread support for OA in the academic community, the large for-profit publishers have remained in charge and did not fade away in the face of new ways to distribute information freely on the Internet. In fact, they seem to be thriving. The "brand" quality and integrity, real or perceived, that established publishing houses bring to the table are hard to replace solely through volunteer efforts, even when aided by new electronic collaboration tools.

That is not to say the movement toward OA died—quite the contrary. Journals labeled as OA have increased substantially in number, but most are not truly free and open in the way that Harnad first proposed (now called Green OA). While some notable and successful free OA peer-reviewed journals came into the picture (e.g., First Monday), these were exceptions. Many journals labeled as OA, even nonprofits such as PLOS journals, might best be described as a compromise (usually called Gold OA) between the publishing and research communities. These OA journal approaches all have two things in common. 

First, all involve some sort of upfront fees for the publishing costs to make articles OA. In some cases, there is also a pay-extra fee for a required subscription to the publication(s). Second, none have proved to be as transformative as had been hoped. These approaches are costly,Footnote5 and they disadvantage authors, institutions, and countries that can't afford the constantly increasing upfront fees. While readers may not have paywalls preventing open access, authors still do. Furthermore, upfront fee schemes have resulted in predatory publishing practices on the part of a few unscrupulous publishers; given that a larger number of published papers leads to more income, some publishers are willing to publish almost all submissions, with little or no real vetting. Finally, control over how much to pay remains firmly in the hands of publishers, especially the large publishers, while the issues of spiraling costs and unaffordable access escalate.

Time for a Modest Proposal?

Now is the time to end compromises altogether. I believe we should not go back to Harnad's subversive proposal but should instead offer a more "modest proposal"—like the one Jonathan Swift satirically put forth in 1729 proposing that the Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to the rich. In short, isn't it time to have the publishers for lunch? Why not simply gobble them up—in capitalist style? This could be accomplished by buying them out or at least taking a bite out of their monopolistic captured market. Isn't it time for institutions and libraries to save the money spent on expensive subscriptions and upfront fee schemes? Why not use their resources to buy out or buy back scholarly publishing in such a way that higher education can better control pricing and distribution?

Suggesting that institutions take over the publishing of their own research is not new. Given that many colleges and universities already have "presses," the idea is that more of them should become publishers and create publishing enterprises to compete with commercial scholarly journals, perhaps in partnership with libraries. A report by ITHAKA in 2007 is an early example of this kind of proposal.Footnote6 Unfortunately, the idea met with little success. Along these same lines, some colleges and universities have published scholarly journals as part of what is often called the Diamond approach to OA. In this approach, institutions—primarily academic institutions but also government agencies and nonprofits—financially support and often manage OA journals. But here too, success has been limited.Footnote7 At a time when scale matters, academic institutions are unlikely to be able to take on such a large business that is not within their area of expertise. With few exceptions, most university presses are already struggling economically, libraries are ill-equipped to operate publishing enterprises, and academic institutions cannot subsidize publishing endeavors, no matter how noble, without seeing a direct benefit from this investment.

Therefore, I am instead suggesting that colleges and universities strategically invest directly in the publishing process and industry through various forms of sponsorship, partnership, or even outright ownership. Today, with outsourcing and partnerships becoming the norm, why shouldn't scholarly output follow suit? Why not expend campus resources in ways that give institutions more control over costs and modes of distribution? Doing so could begin to erode the commercial publishing conglomerates' stranglehold on scholarly output and put at least some of that control back into the hands of those who produce this output. Perhaps this could be characterized as extending the Diamond approach of institutional funding to underwrite free and open access in a strategic way that provides more direct benefit to the funding academic institutions and, just as importantly, increased power in the marketplace.

A significant number of institutions are already paying extra to make their faculty publications OA. Why should these institutions waste funds on up-front fees that fail to move us any closer to universal OA and that keep commercial publishing monopolies in control of the marketplace? If more colleges and universities were to take up the charge and invest in at least one high-quality OA journal through sponsorship, partnership, or ownership, the academic community could begin to take charge of its own intellectual property and change the scholarly journal marketplace.

Crazy idea? Perhaps. Who would be willing to invest, why would they do so, what would be the result, and how would it happen?

New Partnerships and New Players

Established brands and companies do not sell valuable assets unless forced to. No established commercial publishers would sell their scholarly publications or consider forming some sort of partnership with a college or university—at least not at a reasonable price. But there are two groups of publishers who might consider partnerships: learned societies and professional associations.

Learned societies and professional associations have long been in an awkward position in the OA wars. On the one hand, their members are often very sympathetic to and advocates for OA. On the other hand, those societies and associations that depend on the fees from publication subscriptions to subsidize various other membership activities can be part of the problem. So while learned societies and professional associations would be as unlikely to sell as commercial publishers, another option could work. Higher education institutions could fund OA for research published by these societies through some form of partnership or sponsorship arrangement. Even a PBS funding/sponsorship model might work. In other words, the partner would subsidize, or at least sponsor, a publication so that it could be made OA by replacing the funds that the society might have received from subscriptions. In return, the funding institution would increase its recognition as a partner or sponsor and enhance its reputation and brand. This approach might also lend itself to multiple partners or sponsors, thus helping keep individual costs low for sponsors or partners.

The second way to invest in OA publications is by creating new, competitive OA journals with entrepreneurs. Just as the move to online education opened opportunities for enterprises like Coursera and 2U, the same thing could happen if colleges and universities moved to fund new competitive scholarly publications directly, as owners or at least as partners. While there may be a limit to the number of learned societies and publications, there is no limit to the number of entrepreneurs looking for new ways to sell services. It also stands to reason that with the right incentives and investments, additional creative entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would see this as an opportunity to build a business with a steady income, creating a more competitive marketplace—one that might eventually compete successfully with the large academic publishers.

New Brands

One of the reasons that publishing in scholarly journals is encouraged is to build reputation. The greater the number of people who read an article or research report that is affiliated with an institution, the more that institution's reputation is enhanced. Thus, wouldn't a direct association with a widely circulated and highly regarded/branded scholarly journal also boost an institution's reputation? This brand enhancement can provide a strong incentive for an institution to consider investing in a scholarly publication.

Today, many colleges and universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build or maintain their reputational standing. They spend these funds not just on the efforts of their own PR department but also externally on the efforts of private PR firms and expensive reputational consulting firms. Yet what better way to build a reputation than to be associated with a high-quality scholarly journal, perhaps one that specializes in an area the institution would like to be known for? Doing so would likely be much cheaper than the fees charged by branding experts.

MIT and Harvard University have demonstrated this tactic in the management field, with the Sloan Management Review and the Harvard Business Review (HBR). One could argue that HBR is not a scholarly journal, since its articles are not peer-reviewed, and when they are, the review is performed mostly by scholars affiliated with Harvard. Despite this, both prove that journals can enhance the reputation of programs. One might also argue that the institutions are using subscription fees to pay for publications that build their reputation—a practice that might be justly criticized in the context of the OA movement. Nevertheless, both journals demonstrate what a high-quality journal can do to build the reputation of an institution or program.

Publishing, or at least being directly associated with a highly rated peer-reviewed and fully vetted publication as a reputation-building strategy, might also be especially attractive to government agencies. Granting agencies and foundations might want to consider funding scholarly publications to build up the reputation and overall quality of countries and regions that are trying to improve their research and educational systems. Unlike the profit-motivated, private scholarly publishing industry, agencies and foundations might consider further enhancement by publishing high-quality journals in multiple languages.

It should be noted that there would be a "first-movers" advantage for the institutions and agencies that are the first to decide to become publishing partners. These pioneers would have their choice of subject matter. They could strategically pick areas in which they want to build their reputation or areas that have less competition but high potential for impact.

A New Marketplace

In 2020, worldwide expenditures for scholarly journals were estimated at over $19 billion dollars annually.Footnote8 Why not redirect those investments?

If sponsorship, or even outright ownership, of high-quality journals is taken over by enough higher education institutions and perhaps government agencies, desire for sponsorship or "outsourcing" contracts would reintroduce competition to the publishing marketplace. Yes, there would still be costs to colleges and universities, but now they would be positioned to set, or at least influence, those costs. Organizations would have to compete for sponsorships. While this may still favor the better-funded institutions, government agencies and foundations could now at least step in to even the playing field. Likewise, new publishers entering the marketplace using a non-subscription funding model would have to compete for contracts from funders. Researchers would be more willing to publish in high-quality OA alternative publications. Furthermore, if costs were to become too high in some instances, colleges and universities could seek other sponsorships and service partners. There would then be pressure on all players, not just funding institutions, to keep costs reasonable, since the overall costs would be shared, giving funders more control.

As branded scholarly journals prove to be a valuable reputational tool for colleges and universities, more institutions would jump at the opportunity to get a piece of the reputational action, creating more OA journals and a different publishing marketplace model. At some point, even the large academic publishers might have to change their business model and cede more oversight back to institutions in the form of sponsorships or partnerships, especially if they are faced with being forced out of the marketplace altogether.

Furthermore, as the number of institutionally sponsored "free" OA journals increases, the less all colleges and universities will have to spend on the remaining publications that charge fees to users or authors. Of course, in this scenario, higher education institutions would still be spending funds for sponsorships of journals, but these costs could be better controlled and ultimately would be significantly less than what is now being spent on fee-based journals, especially if the subscription or pay-forward publications decrease in number. Perhaps this is an unreachable goal, but I believe it is one worth striving for.

New Modes of Publishing

Funding publications through sponsorship and partnerships would open the opportunities not only to distribute more research articles as OA but also to distribute them differently. The very notion of a "journal" is outmoded in today's digital environment. Why publish research as a collection of bound articles designed to sit on a library shelf? Does anyone read bound journal articles these days? Breaking the subscription delivery model would clear the way for new models that could circulate articles more effectively, resulting in broader readership and more timely publication schedules. While commercial publishers are now starting to explore the idea of preprints for a price and other modes of electronic delivery and packaging, eliminating price and pay subscription considerations would allow for more avenues to be explored without the need to worry about how to keep paywalls in place.

What about "orphans"? There are, of course, specialized journals and research areas perceived as less desirable than strongly branded reputational vehicles because of their smaller audiences and circulation. Would these be orphaned areas in a partnership/sponsorship scheme such as the one being proposed here? In some cases, smaller specialized journals should not be discounted: they still offer an opportunity for institutions to build a reputation, or simply community goodwill, in specialized areas. In other cases, perhaps these are areas where government agencies and foundations could step in. Even if such journals remain subscription-based, their limited audiences and the smaller number of remaining orphans would result in a radically different market and likely maintain reasonable pricing overall while keeping these publications in business.

What about libraries? Academic libraries have been in the thick of the OA wars. Do they have a role? What benefits might they reap, if any, by moving from a subscription to a sponsorship/partnership approach for distributing scholarly information? Libraries may, in fact, benefit the most—and not simply through the financial savings gained by avoiding high subscription costs. In fact, there is no guarantee that these savings would remain in the library budget; in many cases, they likely would not, as institutions would presumably use these savings for the proposed sponsorships/partnerships. Where libraries would really benefit is by being able to go back to being, well, libraries! Rather than spending considerable time as contract negotiators, librarians could once again focus their skills and resources on conducting outreach, teaching information-gathering and evaluation skills, developing search aids, and directing students and faculty to curated collections—not just to those within the library but also to virtual OA collections worldwide.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

While this modest proposal may seem like a pipe dream, what is the alternative? Will the academic community simply remain at loggerheads with the publishing industry while continuing to support the latter's sizable profits? Instead of taking action, perhaps many in the community will find it easier to simply blame publishers for the lack of widespread non-fee OA and for the high cost of journals.

Maybe now is the time for institutional, government, and agency leaders to try something different, to really think outside the box. Instead of simply pay-forward, why not pay-forward and own? Crazy? Yes, but as Steve Jobs was quoted in an Apple commercial: "The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do."

What's the worst that could happen? A few well-funded agencies, foundations, colleges and universities, and higher education systems would get great publicity and branding through associative partnerships, sponsorships, and outright ownership of highly regarded journals. They likely would also foster publishing as a service industry that might eventually give the large academic publishers a run for their money.

The old OA strategies haven't worked. Isn't it time for something new—new partnerships, new brands, a new marketplace, and new publishing modes? Anybody interested in lunch?


  1. Lindsay McKenzie, "Big Deal for Open Access," Inside Higher Ed, March 17, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Stevan Harnad, "Publicly Retrievable FTP Archives for Esoteric Science and Scholarship: A Subversive Proposal," London, Network Services Conference, November 28–30, 1994. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. See Sandra Whisler and Susan F. Rosenblatt, "The Library and the University Press: Two Views of the Costs and Problems of the Current System of Scholarly Publishing," Emory University, Scholarly Communication and Technology Conference, April 24–25, 1997. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Richard Edwards and David Shulenburger, "The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (and What to Do about It)," Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 35, no. 6 (2003). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. For example, see Daniel A. Gorelick and Ye Li, "Reducing Open Access Publication Costs for Biomedical Researchers in the U.S.A.," MIT Science Policy Review 2 (August 30, 2021). For a view in the United Kingdom, see Stephen Pinfield and Rob Johnson, "Adoption of Open Access Is Rising—But So Too Are Its Costs," LSE Impact Blog, January 22, 2018. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Laura Brown, Rebecca Griffiths, and Matthew Rascoff, University Publishing in a Digital Age (ITHAKA, July 26, 2007). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Jeroen Bosman, Jan Erik Frantsvåg, Bianca Kramer, Pierre-Carl Langlais, and Vanessa Proudman, The OA Diamond Journals Study: Part 1, Findings, March 2021; Robert Harington, "Diamond Open Access, Societies and Mission," The Scholarly Kitchen, June 1, 2017. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Martin Hagve, "The Money behind Academic Publishing," Tidsskr Nor Legeforen, August 17, 2020. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.

Paul B. Gandel is Professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.

© 2022 Paul B. Gandel. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.