How Corporations Score Big Profits By Limiting Access To Publicly Funded Academic Research

Here’s how the academic publishing industry works: Academics do research (frequently supported by public funds) and submit that research to journals, often paying “$600-$2,000 to either the publisher or the academic society that owns the journal” for the privilege of publication. Then journals send the research back out to other academics to be reviewed (typically pro-bono — a 2008 study estimated the worldwide worth of unpaid peer review was £1.9 billion a year), and the (often for-profit) journal publishers sell access to the published research, mostly to the academic institutions who do the majority of basic research.

The system is big business: The largest of the for profit academic publishers, Elsevier, reportedly earned over $1 billion in profits in 2011 with a profit margin around 35 percent and 71 percent of their revenue coming from academic customers like university libraries.

But the rapid inflation of journal subscription prices — the per subscription cost rose by 215% between 1986 and 2003 — has left many of those universities struggling to keep up. In a statement last spring, the Harvard Faculty Council called rising costs to maintain access to scholarly works “untenable” and the University of California San Francisco Library spends 85 percent of their collection budget on journal subscriptions, but “[d]espite cancelling the print component of more than 100 journal subscriptions in 2012 to keep up with a budget reduction, [their] costs still increased by 3 percent.”

This major disconnect between how much of this research is funded and produced and who controls the final product has led to a flourishing Open Access movement with broad support among private and public academic institutions, focused on using technological innovations to democratize access to scholarly research and correct what they see as imbalances in the current system through reform on local and national levels. One such national reform they welcomed was the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy memorandum outlining a plan to open up access to research to some federally funded research.

ThinkProgress’ coverage of that announcement drew criticism from an executive at Elsevier:

When reached for comment, Elsevier head of Corporate Relations Tom Reller agreed with her comment and confirmed Smith is VP for Global Internal Communications for Reed Elsevier subsidiary Elsevier, but referred questions about the company’s support of Open Access movement to its website and a recent statement of support for the White House’s proposal. Elsevier’s website says the company “will continue to identify access gaps, and work towards ensuring that everyone has access to quality scientific content anytime, anywhere.”


But their parent company’s lobbying disclosures in 2012 and members of the Open Access community suggest a very different position. When asked over email if they have seen Elsevier and many of the for-profit academic publishers actively cooperate with the Open Access movement on advancing public access to federally funded research, Heather Joseph, the Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), balked at the suggestion:

Quite the opposite. SPARC and the Open Access community spent the first eight weeks of 2012 fighting The Research Works Act (H.R 3699) — a bill introduced into the House of Representatives with the sole aim of overturning the highly successful NIH Public Access Policy, and prohibiting other Federal Agencies from enacting similar policies. Elsevier and the American Association of Publishers were two of only three organizations who publicly endorsed the bill.

If this was the first time they took this tactic, I might be tempted to cut them some slack. But it was a repeat performance; in 2008, they tried the same thing with “The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H.R. 801)” — a bill that tried to amend U.S. copyright code to make the NIH Policy — and policies like it — illegal.

According to the U.S. Senate Lobbying Database, Elsevier’s parent company Reed Elsevier spent $1,420,000 lobbying the U.S. government in 2012. Reed Elsevier’s in-house lobbying team disclosures and those from the Podesta Group listing Reed Elsevier as a client corroborate Wilson’s comments about their support for The Research Works Act — only withdrawing support after a boycott of from academic communities, according to news reports. That boycott continues today, and has attracted over 13,000 scholars and academics who object to Elsevier’s business practices.

Reed Elsevier lobbied OSTP on “[c]opyright issues related to scientific, technology, and medical publications” during the run up to the White House’s Open Access announcement and their in-house lobbying team reported working on “[i]ssues related to science, technical, medical and scholarly publications” and on “all provisions” of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) — a proposal similar to the recently introduced Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) that would have required federal agencies with annual extramural research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to research manuscripts stemming from funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.


Elsevier was one of 81 publishers to sign a Association of American Publishers (AAP) letter opposing FRPAA, with AAP President and CEO Tom Allen calling it “little more than an attempt at intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation to authors and publishers.” Remember, these publishers claiming to be concerned about “fair compensation to authors,” are the same ones often charging them publication fees.

As Reller noted to ThinkProgress, the sum total of Reed Elsevier’s 2012 lobbying expenditures represents the all lobbying done in support of their business ventures and their disclosures list a number of bills unrelated to Open Access. Companies are not required to disclose what proportion of their total lobbying is spent on which topics. We do know that Elsevier, the corporate subsidiary involved with academic publishing, accounted for over 47 percent of Reed Elsevier’s adjusted operating profits in 2011.

While AAP released a statement in support of the White House’s plan Open Access memorandum, their comments praised how the plan only included guidelines for releasing research, not mandates, saying the policy’s success is dependent on “how the agencies use their flexibility to avoid negative impacts” on the current system and calling it fair “[i]n stark contrast to angry rhetoric and unreasonable legislation offered by some” — a reference to the Open Access movement. Elsevier’s similar response to the plan praised it for promoting “gold open access funded through publishing charges and flexible embargo periods for green open access” and dismissed Open Access legislative proposals, saying they would like “open-access advocates [to] withdraw their support from unnecessary and divisive open access legislation now introduced in the US at federal level.”

There’s ample room to credit the academic publishing industry’s history of serving as the shepherds of scholarly research — but technology has dramatically changed researchers’ ability to share knowledge without intermediaries. There is an ideological debate at hand, and it’s about if the public is better served by expanding access to the research they fund or protecting the interests of companies who have a substantial financial stake in limiting that access.