A recent article published by the Times Higher Education is causing quite a bit of discussion particularly amongst business and management scholars. The article, written by Professor Simon Lilley, who runs the School of Management at the University of Leicester, is based on a contribution – free to download – to a forum of the journal Organization on the future of journals. In that piece, Lilley and his colleagues David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot and Kenneth Weir scrutinize the business practices of some for-profit academic publishers, with some shocking results. Informa plc, for example, moved to a tax haven in Switzerland, while still turning a large profit on sales of journals to publicly funded libraries. And the practices of large commercial publishers to sell journals in large bundles to libraries (who then get access to many journals they need but also many they might not) means that with squeezed budgets it is independent journals whose subscriptions are cancelled. On profitability, Lilley writes in the THE:
Few would disagree that commercial publishers should be able to cover their costs and reap some profit from their investment. The figures in their accounts, however, give pause for thought. We found companies enjoying profit margins as high as 53 per cent on academic publishing. That compares with 6.9 per cent for electricity utilities, 5.2 per cent for food suppliers and 2.5 per cent for newspapers.
The contribution to Organization ends with a plea to the editors to force Sage to lower subscription costs to to the journal. The discussion on the pages of THE and also on lists such as the Jiscmail list Critical-Management take up these discussion of strategy, with positions ranging from a call for a pledge from academics to not submit work or review for any journals from tax-dodging and profit-hungry publishers to a call for a collective action to dismantle the current publishing practices and establish new ones.
There are perhaps two questions that impose themselves most immediately for anyone concerned with hybrid publishing and open access in particular: 1) with many commercial publishers establishing open access offerings, does this kind of research on their business practices not seriously undermine them as partners in a scholarly publishing landscape? And 2) what kind of strategies should academics adopt to challenge the excessive profits and dubious business practices of commercial publishers, and how can alternatives be established?