Scientific Publishing Industry Has Become An Oligopoly

Story Highlights

  • The dissemination of scientific research has significantly changed in the last four decades.
  • A study at the University of Montreal finds that five corporations control the publication of nearly all major scientific papers.
  • The oligopoly of scientific publishers has led to “science” that favors the interests of industry.

The flow of scientific research has significantly metamorphosed in the last 40 years. The content and production of published scientific research in the 21st century has been significantly influenced by a change in ownership of mainstream medical journals. As a result, today the scientific publishing industry has become an oligopoly that is controlled by a few big publishers owned by big corporations.

Historically, non-profit academic societies owned scientific journals.1 These societies were for the most part, created to finance print publication of research by the scientific community.

However, at the beginning of the digital era of computers in the 1960’s and 70’s and then the emergence of the world wide web in the early 1990’s, academic societies, particularly those representing the social sciences, did not have the resources and ability to adapt to publishing electronic versions of medical journals.2 As a result, in the 1960s and 1970s, commercial publishers began selectively acquiring the best quality medical journals, which were previously published by the nonprofit academic societies.2 It was financially desirable for these academic societies to partner with large publishers since it relieved their costs of publishing their journals.2

It was in the mid-1990s that the proportion of medical journals owned by these publishers’ started to grow steadily while individual publishers only owned a smaller portion.1 Since the demand for scientific journals is inelastic, commercial publishers were able to raise their prices significantly without losing much of the market.2

It was speculated in the late-1990s that digital era could potentially have polar opposite effects on the print publishing industry.6 Some authors predicted that the Internet could be a solution to the serials’ crisis—a term used to describe decreasing library budgets coupled with skyrocketing subscription rates.2 3 Others hypothesized that it would worsen the situation.4 Although it is generally believed that the digitalization of medical literature information is now concentrated among a small number of publishers, there was no research to demonstrate this until recently.6

The Current State of Scientific Publishing

A study titled “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era”6 conducted at the University of Montreal’s School of Information and Library Science in Canada reveals that the flow of published scientific research today is controlled by five of the largest medical literature publishing houses, including Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. The fifth largest medical literature publishers are the American Chemical Society for the hard sciences and Sage Publications for the social sciences.1 5

Study lead author Vincent Larivière, PhD of the University of Montreal in Canada and his team examined 45 million articles appearing in the scientific literature indexed in the Web of Science database between 1973 and 2013 and found that the publishing industry has changed dramatically since the beginning of the digital era.6 Due to mergers and acquisitions, the five largest publishing houses combined control 50% of the market in 2015a significant increase from 30% in 1996 and only 20% in 1973 resulting in a mass consolidation of medical journal publishing power.6 7

Dr. Larivière explains in his study:

Overall, the major publishers control more than half of the market of scientific papers both in the natural and medical sciences and in the social sciences and humanities.5

Furthermore, these large commercial publishers have huge sales, with profit margins of nearly 40%. While it is true that publishers have historically played a vital role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the print era, it is questionable whether they are still necessary in today’s digital era.5

So how is the immense profitability of the medical literature publishing industry explained? Unlike most industries, the two most important inputs in academic publishing are provided for free, that is, publishers do not pay for the writing of the articles or the peer review process, thus eliminating a significant amount of production costs.2 Moreover, publishers have complete control over the content of medical journals, which are published as a single copy and sold to multiple buyers who can access them electronically.7

The Implications of Scientific Publishing

The oligopoly of scientific publishers has some important implications to the scientific community and to our society. The autonomy enjoyed by the scientific community in decades past before consolidation of publishers in the hands of big corporations has gradually diminished.

Corporate owned publishers have gained so much control over the type of content that gets published that it has led to a trend toward “science” that is both politically correct and favors the interests of the pharmaceutical and medical trade industries. In addition, medical journals today tend to block publication of studies that provide evidence conflicting with government health policies involving use of pharmaceutical products, in part due to the fact that over the past four decades Congress has passed legislation directing federal agencies to develop a strong financial public-private partnership with the pharmaceutical industry.8 9

Universities and academic research groups have become increasingly obligated to the special interests of these major publishers of medical journals, which tend to favor publishing scientific articles that favor corporate interests of large industries such as pharmaceuticals. It is no secret that there has been collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and medical journal publishers in relation to publishing criteria and guidelines particularly on industry-sponsored clinical research, thus calling into question the credibility of science-based medicine.10

Although a handful of publishers’ control more than 50% of the market of scientific journal publishing, the study also found that the value added has not increased.6 It can be argued that during the print era, publishers had a large role to play in the diffusion of knowledge through typesetting and printing; however, these functions are now easily fulfilled with the use of computers, making us wonder why we need print publishers at all.6 While most journals rely on publishing systems to review manuscripts and facilitate the process, it is the researchers who are part of the scientific community that execute the peer review process.6 As a result, the quality control requirement is not a value added by the publishers but by the scientific community itself.6

Scientists and medical researchers continue to be highly dependent on the symbolic function of publishers in order to gain academic capital.6 Emerging researchers are pressured to publish in prestigious journals to secure tenure while experienced researchers need to do the same in order to maintain their grants from both industry and government.

Publishing in high impact journals such as Elsevier or Springer is what ‘counts’ in academia.6 Lariviere sums it up this way:

As long as publishing in high impact factor journals is a requirement for researchers to obtain positions, research funding, and recognition from peers, the major commercial publishers will maintain their hold on the academic publishing system.11


1 Greenberg J. The Web Will Either Kill Science Journals Or Save Them. Wired June 15, 2015.
2 McGuigan GS, Russell RD. The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship 2008; 9(3).
3 Mackenizie OJ. The Scientific Article in the Age of Digitalization. Dordrecht: Springer 2007; 22.
4 Solomon DJ. Talking past each other: making sense of the debate over electronic publication. First Monday 2002;7 (8).
5 Huff E. Academic oligarchy: Majority of science publishing is controlled by just six companies. Natural News July 19, 2015.
6 Larivière V, Haustein S, Mongeon P. The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS One 2015; 10(6).
7 EurekAlert. Five companies control more than half of academic publishing. American Association for the Advancement of Science June 10, 2015.
8 Fisher, BL. The 21st Century Cures Act: Say Goodbye to Vaccine Safety Science. The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 19, 2015.
9 Jefferson T, Di Pietrantonj C et al. Relation of study quality, concordance, take home message, funding and impact of studies of influenza vaccines: systematic review. BMJ 2009: 338.
10 Hitt E. Pharma Companies, Publishers Agree on Publishing Guidelines. Medscape May 10, 2012.
11 Vibes J. Study Finds Nearly All Scientific Papers Controlled By Six Corporations. True Activist July 22, 2015.

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