Academic Publishers’ Business Models Need Major Overhaul

The Economist ( is running a survey where they state:

Academics are increasingly up in arms about the hefty fees they have to stump up for must-read journals. They criticise the journals. They point out that much of what publishers charge for, like peer review, is done for free by researchers themselves. Distribution costs, too, have dwindled with the growth of the internet (of which academics were early adopters). The publishers retort that the high fees (and 37% margins) are justified to ensure quality and cover the admittedly non-zero costs of peer review, editing and dissemination. The profits, they add, are proof that the journals are a valuable product that academics have (however grudgingly) been willing to pay for.

The profit margin quoted by The Economist is that of Reed Elsevier’s, which has been the primary target of academic ire in the last few years due to their antiquated business model. It is interesting that Elsevier stated, in a press release (

Elsevier is happy to work with any sustainable business model for publishing services. We are happy with models where funding is provided on the author-side or the user-side of the publishing process, or hybrids of the two.

While Elsevier and other publishers of academic journals have had a great run so far, internet and open collaboration brought an end to their business model. Now, there is an urgent need to re-invent their business model to stay relevant and remain profitable. Publishers’ value has been the review process they facilitated, publication quality they maintained and distribution they managed. With internet, the value of print distribution is quickly vanishing. So, the new business model will have to focus on the remaining value and any new value publishers can deliver. Naturally, creating a new business model is a significant task, which goes well beyond the scope of this posting. However, I will speculate on a few areas where publishers can bring value and remain relevant in an evolving space.


Even open source and open collaboration environments require aggregation and facilitation. For example, Linux kernel code is controlled by a consortium led by Linus Torvalds. Innocentive (, an open collaboration network, enables organizations to solve their key problems by connecting them to diverse sources of innovation including employees, customers, partners, and the world’s largest problem solving marketplace.

As these two examples show, there is clear value in creating a platform for connecting content providers with reviewers and the final content with consumers.

Quality Control

Finding credible information on the internet is a challenge. Academic quality is critical and needs to be controlled. When I say this, I do not mean traditional control or even necessarily keeping the peer-review process. Rather, a possibly new method to ensure that submitted content meets stringent quality expectations, is a result of credible and ethical research, and provides sufficient information to others who may want to repeat or build upon the presented information.

Connections to Previous Work

Printed journals do not do a great job in ensuring the quality of underlying work that results in a publication nor they create a forum for building on existing knowledge. Follow-up work, if published, is only linked to the originating work through references. These connections are very difficult and time-consuming to follow for researchers. Creating a platform, where relevant work can be easily mapped to each other, could create significant value.

Access to Knowledge

While the primary objective of publishers should be to disseminate knowledge as quickly and as widely as possible, current practices do not fully support the needs of the 21st century. Print media takes time to produce, requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure to distribute, and is difficult to search and monitor for relevant updates.  In addition, underprivileged countries cannot afford the prices dictated by publishers. However, mobile devices and internet are quickly spreading in countries where traditional infrastructures lack. Exploiting this booming mobile-based culture in emerging countries could lead to a profitable business model in an under-served market.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

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