Nature, the scientific publishing behemoth, has acquired the upstart open-access publisher Frontiers. It will be interesting to see how this will shake out; will Nature publications move towards a more open access model, or will Frontiers shift to a more traditional model?

Scientific publishing is big business. From the Economist article:

Outsell, a consultancy, estimates that open-access journals generated $172m in 2012, up 34% from 2011.

This is still a tiny fraction of the $6 billion or so generated by journal subscriptions. But the traditional subscription-based model is falling out of favour. Academics have long complained that publishers abuse their monopoly-like power. Perusing Tetrahedron, say, is a must for any self-respecting chemist. So they (or rather, their university libraries) grudginly cough up €18,570 ($24,267) for an annual subscription. More than 13,000 scientists are boycotting Elsevier, a big Dutch publisher of thousands of journals, including Tetrahedron, whose 37% margins on $2.1 billion in revenues make it the biggest offender in the eyes of many.

In comparison, $6 billion dollars a year is more revenue the music industry generates from iTunes1 ($5.6 billion), or iOS developers make from the App store2. Scientist must pay significant fees to publish their articles, and then institutions have to pay even larger fees to access the research. Now, with the internet, it is becoming possible to publish in journals or preprint servers that anyone can access. In physics things are already moving this way with the advent of the Arxiv, a free online repository that contains a mix of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed work:

ArXiv is already hosted by Cornell University at a cost of around $830,000 a year. Tacking on an "epijournal", so that referreed papers would sit alongside the original preprints, for instance, should not add too much on top of that.

The idea makes perfect sense. Scientists already do most of the heavy lifting involved in publishing research: they write up and format papers, post them to online servers, sit on journals' editorial boards and review their colleagues' work. One reason for Elsevier's mouth-watering margins is that this work is typically done for no compensation.

With that much money at stake, it will take some time for things to change.

  1. The iTunes Value Structure 
  2. A more complete picture of the iTunes economy