Research 'should benefit society, not shareholders'

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Publishers’ power in the research ecosystem must be tackled on a sector-wide basis, writes Silke Machold

Shareholder value maximisation has been severely criticised in recent years, with a growing number of prominent business leaders recognising that companies have obligations to society as well as their shareholders. 

This moral responsibility is also emerging in scholarly communications. Most academic research is still published behind paywalls, but researchers and funders are increasingly looking to make data and research outputs freely and openly available for the benefit of society.  

The lion’s share of academic research is publicly funded, yet revenues derived from that research are distributed disproportionately, serving shareholders rather than researchers. Academic publishers and their shareholders have benefitted from an increasing proportion of library budgets. In the past, publishers routinely sought annual increases of journal subscription fees in addition to significant revenue from open access article processing charges. This is particularly hard for the smaller institutions that want to publish open access. 

The savings and economies of scale that have emerged in the past decade have not led to a reduction in subscription fees while proofreading and editing services have been reduced. Meanwhile, academics are not paid for the many manuscripts they review in their own time, so publishers are extracting value using free academic labour.

That is a cause for concern, since a lot of publicly funded research is produced by institutions against a backdrop of financial difficulty and high levels of staff burnout and mental health problems due to the pandemic and work pressure. When I note the high profit margins of the large commercial publishers, I feel concerned and angry. 

In the coming months, my university, together with 156 other UK universities and with support from Jisc, will renegotiate the largest publishing contract held by UK institutions. In the negotiations with Elsevier the sector is looking to secure a read-and-publish open access agreement, which brings together subscription spend, and open access publishing spend into a single, more affordable fee. 

These transformative ‘read and publish’ agreements give universities, like ours, the chance to publish open access. For instance, under the transitional agreement we already have with publisher Wiley, the University of Wolverhampton have had 16 articles published, from 12 different authors, since the deal began in 2020. Without the agreement, it is very unlikely that any of these would have been published OA.

Governance is key

During our negotiations with Elsevier, governance plays a key role. It creates accountability and transparency around decision making and will leverage the collective investment of all universities to challenge current inefficiencies with the aim of adding value to UK research and innovation.

Through these negotiations, we have a chance to present alternatives that everybody feels comfortable signing up for. 

I would like to see a transformational deal that commits much more to open access and introduces a much greater emphasis on responsible research and corporate responsibility by publishers. We require a rapid transition from paywalls to full and immediate open access instead of the current transactional, article by article-based models that do not reflect the significant contribution made by the research community. This new agreement with Elsevier should also contribute to a healthy debate around freeing up researcher’s options of where they want to publish by unlocking the significant sums now paid to for-profit publishers. Allowing some of the money now paid to publishers to follow authors regardless of where they publish will mitigate against the detrimental impact of research metrics and could support greater uptake of open access publishing. 

What I and my colleagues are keen to avoid during the negotiation process is the perpetuation of current inequalities in research. We already understand the unfairness related to gender and ethnicity, but I am also concerned about inequalities faced by less well funded institutions. 

Researchers in non-Russell Group institutions like mine usually attract less funding, and article processing charge (APC) funding pots are limited or absent. It is great to see APC waivers for scholars from low-income countries but more needs to be done to level the playing field.

Publishers are enormously powerful in the research ecosystem and if that influence contributes to inequalities in research, it must be tackled on a sector wide basis.

Silke Machold is Professor of Corporate Governance and Dean of Research at the University of Wolverhampton, UK