Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal's School of Library and Information Science, was faced with a dilemma. Researchers like him depended upon journals to keep up with developments in their fields, but so often these subscriptions came bundled with hundreds of others they didn't need, bringing the costs up high.
Unable to afford these prices, which increase yearly, the University of Montreal has begun cutting subscriptions, earning the ire of its own researchers.
Larivière points out the sad irony of this situation:
"The big problem is that libraries or institutions that produce knowledge don't have the budget anymore to pay for [access to] what they produce.”
In response, Larivière sought out to determine what percentage of research papers were being published by the biggest academic publishers, hoping to ascertain whether it would be possible to cancel some of these costlier subscriptions, and still maintain access to the newest research.
What he found was disconcerting, to say the least.
It appears that the 5 largest for-profit academic publishers are publishing around 53% of papers in the natural and medical sciences. Compare this to the 20% hold they had in 1973. It's even worse with the social sciences, for which these 5 publishers hold a 70% monopoly.
In effect, they have become an oligarchy. And it is this undue power that allows these companies to increase prices at will.
"The control that they now have over the scientific output researchers I would say is way too high, So that's why they can come up with annual increases that are between five six , seven, even 10 per cent."
And it's not just that the costs are exorbitant: Researchers, unlike other authors, don't get paid for the papers they write, so there's no cash-flow going the opposite way.
Thankfully, a solution is in sight. Physics researchers have already begun publishing publicly accessible preprints of their papers on a site called arxiv.org, before or even instead of sending them to journals. If other disciplines do the same, the monopoly of the Big Five could be taken down.