The Changing Landscape of Scientific Publishing

Peter Turchin


A senior colleague from my ecology days wrote to me with a request for a PDF reprint of an article I published in 1991. The article came out in Ecology, the flagship journal of the Ecological Society of America (ESA). When I published it, Ecology was an independent journal produced by the ESA. But when my colleague wanted to obtain an electronic reprint he ended up on the website of Wiley and Sons, a for-profit publisher of more than 1500 scientific journals, and was asked to purchase the reprint.

I searched for the title of my paper and also ended up on Wiley’s site, and also found that I would have to pay $36 for a PDF of my article. To say that I was speechless is to say nothing. Not only I am the author of the article, my university subscribes to Ecology and I personally paid Ecology subscription for many years, including 1991 (that was before I switched to cliodynamics and cultural evolution). I still have those 1991 issues gathering dust on a shelf in my lab. So naturally I refused to pay, and asked my office assistant to make a scan from a reprint that I found on another dusty shelf. The quality of the PDF, of course, is not as good as when it is directly printed from the source file.

Later on, however, I figured out how to get a good quality PDF. My university also subscribes to JSTOR, and you can get old issues of Ecology through this great resource, and so I did.

This is the beginning of the article in question. I was doing pretty abstruse things at the time.

But why did the ESA sell out to a for-profit publisher?  It seems to go so much against the spirit of the Society that I remember when I was still a member. Googling, I discovered that it’s a very recent change, which happened only in 2015.

I have no idea why the ESA leadership did it, and I think it’s a very poor decision.

The landscape of scientific publishing has been changing very dramatically in the last few years, and more changes are coming. I’ve blogged about it before, so I won’t repeat it here:

The Impending Demise of Greedy For-Profit Scientific Publishers (Part I)

The Impending Demise of Greedy For-Profit Scientific Publishers (Part II)

Greedy Publishers III: Oxford University Press

“Unleashing the Power of Academic Sharing”

Naturally, it will take yet some years for the greedy for-profit scientific publishers to go the way of the dinosaurs. The problem is the scientists themselves, or rather the majority who are still all too willing to work for free to enrich wily publishers (pun intended).

But the writing is on the wall. Thirty years ago scientific publishers could rely to sell 5,000 subscriptions to university libraries. They could afford to keep the subscription costs reasonable, since they made money in bulk.

Then two things happened. The publishers started increasing the cost of institutional subscriptions. Meanwhile library budgets started declining, so libraries started dropping subscriptions. Publishers increased the costs even more, to make up for reduced volume, and libraries responded by dropping more subscriptions. We are nearing the point when this whole business model is going to collapse. Which is why I have invested my effort into open-source publishing, and started Cliodynamics in 2010.

It seems crazy to me that an academic society would want to sell their journals to a for-profit publisher, especially such highly respected and successful journal as Ecology. Perhaps one of my ecological colleagues will get in touch and explain.

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Greedy for-profit scientific publishers aren’t going down without a fight, anymore than the publishing industry generally. What _I_ don’t understand is why we have no movement across academia to get a long-term funded a nonprofit or low profit cloud platform for dissemination and storage of academic archives and current peer reviewed journals. The costs of doing this are low enough that it seems to me it could be achieved. There are some limited services. That said, the best access I have found for numbers of papers I have searched for in, for instance, genetic demographic distributions is often a .pdf on one of the authors’ own curriculum vitae. The relevant actual professional journals were often behind paywalls, and _steep_ ones. An author having to pay for a copy of their own published research is obviously objectionable in the extreme, mere rent-seeking by parties with no interest in studied understanding of issues of consequence.

Public dissemination of current data and theory has been essential to the development of open, self-critical, research trajectories in most of the sciences and even more of the social science disciplines over the last five generations. When journals became personal fiefs or captured by factions, new ones always sprang up because the costs were low and peer interest in diverse views was high. Research needs to go cloud, in my view to maintain this culture of investigation.

bob sykes

They are not so much timid and lazy as smart. Promotion and tenure committees (you have them at UConn) routinely use publication in high impact journals as one of the chief criteria for promotion and tenure, the others being external funding and Ph. D. production. Most of these for-profit journals are still high prestige, and so Assistant and Associate Professors, and Professors with administrative ambitions will continue to send papers to them.

Aaron Blaisdell

I, too, am flabbergasted with the blase acceptance of pay-to-play publishing in the scientific and academic communities. As founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ancestral Health, which charges no publishing fee and with articles freely available to the public, I hope the journal remains this way in perpetuity, even after I’m long gone. Peter, you’re welcome to submit any good pieces you have that relate in some way to evolutionary mismatch to our nascent and welcoming journal!
(PS, David Blumstein and I are currently preparing a manuscript to submit to Ecology. It’s hard to find an established journal that doesn’t hide behind a paywall of some kind.)
(PPS, the anti-spam captcha I must enter to post this comment is “PETA4”. Kind of ironic given our paleo diet leanings and my being a lab animal researcher!).


Quite frankly, academia needs more Peter Turchins standing up publicly for the freedom of information, which is a fundamental public good. Anything less is cowardice. Until more do so, we will continue to steal their information, on our own initiative, outsmart their monopoly, and give scientific research to the people.

R. N. England

The driving force behind the established-journal ripoff scene is the snobbery and cavalier attitude to other people’s money of a majority of scientists themselves. They are still convinced that publishing in the most popular established journals is the best way of looking after their citation index. They just don’t care if taxpayers or university endowment funds are ripped off every time a colleague accesses their work. The pay-to-play ripoff works because it’s other people who pay for that too.

The main thing is that the work should be properly peer-reviewed. As long a it can be found on Google and downloaded free, who cares where it is?

Karl Frost

Your paper (as well as pretty much every paper i have looked for from the last few decades) is available for free to anyone on sci-hub. ‘found it with about 5 seconds of search.

If institutions are slow to adapt, it seems that work-arounds develop that may, in the end, drive faster institutional changes.

Karl Frost

I assume the creator is living in Russia and the arrest warrant is from some western country?
I wondered about the politics of sci-hub in Russia… state doesn’t care vs state has ongoing agenda to undermine western copyright laws vs some other level/reason of state support. It seems that sci-hub would not exist if the Russian government didn’t want it to exist.

Vladimir Dinets

Sci-hub might be illegal, but it is up and running. All my scientist friends now use it – what a strange coincidence 😉 In its early days it had to migrate every couple months or so, but not anymore. It appears that there is some support for it from the people who are supposed to be chasing it around.

As for open access, have you noticed that publication fees are also going up? A lot of journals now charge $70-100 per page, which is a lot for an independent researcher, and some ask for $1000 or more per article. In some places you can request a waiver if you have no funds, but such journals are becoming rarer.

Matthew Zefferman

“…the majority of scientists are either too timid, or too lazy, or both.” I think of it more as that we are at a sub-optimal equilibrium. Almost everyone agrees that it is better for a (especially junior) scientist’s career to publish in Ecology than PLoS-ONE or BioArXiv. As long as almost everyone agrees, then it is better to publish in Ecology than PLoS-ONE or BioArXiv. Even if everyone agrees that a different equilibrium would be better, it is risky for a (especially junior) scientist to unilaterally start publishing in open access journals (assuming he or she has the money for publication fees). It is not really laziness, but a coordination problem. Really, whole disciplines need to make the switch. I’ve always thought this could start with professional society’s flagship journals. It is disheartening to see ESA go the opposite way.

Karl Frost

I’ve also wondered if we could simply jump out of this model of journal articles and move to continuously updated articles posted or Rxiv. I remember Richard McElreath talking about this model in physics for publication. I wonder what the barriers to adoption in other sciences is?

Matthew Zefferman

Peter, that is an interesting idea. For the MLS process of equilibrium selection, we’d need different segments of the (scientific) population occupying two or more different equilibria.Then those at the preferred equilibria would have to out-compete the others in some common currency. It is not clear to me how this state of affairs would come about in practice.

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