I am curious about the worldwide accepted ethics in publishing. I have never seen any other economic sector in which someone legally sold someone else's product for their own profit, apparently without paying for it in any way. I don’t intend to accuse any publisher, I just want to know how this works and why is this acceptable. Is it expected to be changed in the future? Do scientists want to change it, or is this accepted by more or less the whole community?

I admit, this question might seem to be off topic or opinion based but I don’t know where could I ask it.

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11 Answers 11

History.

In the dark ages (i.e., before the internet), publishers provided a valuable service. If an author has a great idea, they want the whole world to read about it and the best way to do that is to get someone to publish their work. The publisher arranges for reviews, copyedits your work, and, most importantly, prints thousands of copies and sends them to libraries and archives around the world. (Note that, legally, they need to have the rights to distribute the work, and they claim ownership of the copyediting work.) Doing all this printing, mailing, and copyediting costs a lot money and thus publishers have to charge for their services. They also make a small profit from all of this.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the picture has changed considerably. Since the arrival of personal computers and software like LaTeX and Microsoft Word, copyediting is now mostly done by authors. (Reviewers and editors are rarely paid.) And, due to the internet, it is very easy to distribute papers using websites like arXiv. Going to the library to find a print journal is now a thing of the past, as journals these days just have websites. Of course, publishers are still doing something, but it's a fraction of what it used to be.

Publishers made a lot of sense 50 years ago, but these days their model doesn't make a lot of sense; they still collect a lot of money, even though the services could be provided much more cheaply. So why does this model persist? Firstly, publishers still own the copyrights to lots of old work that is still relevant. More importantly, publishers own the "prestige" of their journals, which means academics keep sending them their work.

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    I feel that this is the most honest, accurate and contemporary answer. It really does seem to be the case that most of what publishers are providing nowadays is the prestigious venues that academics still want and need to publish in. – Pete L. Clark Sep 10 at 19:04
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    They never needed the copyright. They only needed licenses. – chrylis Sep 10 at 19:48
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    "Of course, publishers are still doing something, but it's a fraction of what it used to be." If you believe this, then the number of employees publishers have must be shrinking. Let's take Elsevier, everyone's favourite-to-hate publisher. In 1999, they employed 3600 people (relx.com/~/media/Files/R/RELX-Group/documents/reports/… p.37). In 2017, that number is 7500 (relx.com/~/media/Files/R/RELX-Group/documents/reports/…, p. 126). What gives? – Allure Sep 10 at 21:20
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    @Allure I think Thomas meant that publishers provide less of a service for a given paper now, though I'm not sure how to quantify that. Of course, since 1999 Elsevier has grown, publishing significantly more articles and journals, and also expanded into data analytics, so as a company they're certainly still doing things, but likely somewhat different things than they used to – Anyon Sep 10 at 21:45
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    @Dirk The grocery store adds very little, which is reflected in their margins: A few percent at most. – pipe Sep 11 at 11:17

It is not acceptable, and people are taking steps to change things, but the system has enormous inertia and many perverse incentives that must be overcome to make progress.

I would like to draw an analogy to fiction publishing. Authors in that field have a maxim called “Yog’s Law” which states: money is supposed to flow toward the author. This is held as a guiding principle, even in contexts where nobody expects to make a living by publishing their fiction: short stories, for instance, pay a pittance (SFWA minimum rate is US$0.06 per word, times one to ten thousand words, so $60 to $600 for a story that probably took at least 40 hours of effort to write—this is beer money, not rent money). This principled stand is because there is a long history of “vanity presses” scamming authors with grandiose promises of riches and fame if they’ll just underwrite the up-front costs, and then not doing any marketing whatsoever, so nobody buys the book and the riches and fame never materialize. Contrast this with a legitimate traditional publisher, who pays you an advance, assumes the risk that the book never sells enough copies to “earn out” that advance, and does do marketing. Also contrast a printer for hire catering to self-publishers, who will tell you up front what services they do and don’t provide and how much each costs, and will not make any grandiose promises. This is who you should hire to print up your family history, not a vanity press—unfortunately there isn’t an accepted alternative term for honest printers-for-hire as a group..

Academic publication is different because not only do we not expect to receive riches from publication, we don’t expect to earn anything at all in the first place (for journal articles, anyway; I understand monograph and textbook publishers do pay royalties). Yog’s Law does not directly apply. However, we are looking for a particular kind of fame, the kind where other researchers read our papers and learn things and build on them, perhaps even centuries from now. (Much as a writer of fiction hopes that people will read their stories and find entertainment or catharsis or inspiration in them.) For this reason, we warn against publishing in “predatory journals” that charge hefty fees, don’t do adequate peer review, and exaggerate the likelihood of anyone reading the paper or taking it all that seriously. Predatory journals are the direct analogue of vanity presses in academic publishing. They don’t provide value for the money.

Traditional academic publishers are supposed to provide value for the money they charge: peer review, copyediting and typesetting, archiving, dissemination, and perhaps most important, reputation. Any paper published in one of the top journals or conferences in my subfield has a good chance of being worth my time, and I rely on that. However, over the past 40 years or so (I’m not old enough to know exactly when this trend started) the publishers have become less and less interested in actually providing value, and more and more interested in extracting rents. This is really obvious in my particular subfield, computer security: as I write this, I’ve got a paper accepted for publication in an ACM conference with a top-notch reputation. They facilitated the peer review, but they didn’t pay the reviewers a dime; they did none of the work of copyediting and typesetting, expecting me to hand them a PDF already fully formatted; they maintain both print and online archives, but they want to either charge every reader US$25 for the privilege, or charge me $700 up front. I know that this is price-gouging, because if I had published the same paper at a USENIX conference with a similar reputation and providing an identical set of editorial services, they would charge either readers or me nothing for the privilege.

The usual market-based solution to rent-seeking is refusal to cooperate. So why are we all still cooperating with them? It’s a classic collective action problem. As long as most of the researchers in a field continue to publish in traditional venues, any one person can’t refuse to do so without nasty consequences for their career. If everyone threatens to stop all at once, on the other hand, they have a chance of at least extracting concessions—in my time in graduate school, many of the top computer security conferences have moved from paywalled to open access, because our community put its collective foot down. (Not without incident, though, as anyone else who attended the business meeting at Oakland 2011 can attest.)

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    Can you explain what is unethical about either vanity presses or academic publishers? Just saying it’s a violation of X’s law where X is someone I never heard of is a classic appeal to authority fallacy. Vanity presses for one provide a service people are willing to pay for. Assuming they are not deceptive about their fee structure, I don’t see an ethical issue. With academic publishers the debate is more complicated, but if you claim they’re unethical I think the burden is on you to explain why that’s the case. – Dan Romik Sep 11 at 7:10
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    @DanRomik Especially when "Yog's Law" was coined by an author, so basically amounts to "I should get more money." – David Richerby Sep 11 at 8:03
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    Now you've made me curious: What happened at the "business meeting at Oakland 2011"? Google delivers just "Occupy Oakland" results, which is probably not what you are referring to. – CL. Sep 11 at 11:36
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    Money is supposed to flow toward the author This is a very bad "law" for academia. Do you want scientists to publish science or binge-worthy science fiction/entertainment? – Cape Code Sep 11 at 13:06
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    Let's modify Yog's law to: pay should match added value. Where pay can also be: prestige, research resources, etc. This makes sense as an ideal, but practice proves that the implementation is hard. To the point: does the added value of the publisher match its pay? – jos Sep 11 at 13:27

It is acceptable because there is no convincing argument why it should be unacceptable.

More generally, there is a principle of the law that people are free to enter into contractual agreements with each other, and with other legal entities such as corporations. As long as those agreements are entered into voluntarily between people of legal age, and as long as they are not deemed to be unconscionable agreements, the agreements are legally binding, and in that sense “acceptable”. Other people who are not parties to the agreement may occasionally find them objectionable and be unhappy, but that’s their problem.

In the case of academic publishing, authors voluntarily agree to let publishers publish their papers and not pay them any royalties. I have done so myself many times. So, if I find it acceptable to not get paid royalties for my papers, and there isn’t some convincing legal argument for why my agreements with publishers should be declared unconscionable (as far as I know no one has tried to make such a case), then that’s the end of the story - it’s acceptable.

As for why I and other academics don’t have a problem with not getting royalties, I think the answer is a bit too complicated to discuss in detail here. The short answer is that writing papers is part of my job, for which I am paid a salary by my employer. Scientific papers are simply not the same as fiction or other forms of writing that people write to make money through a direct sale of their work to a body of readers. Your question assumes a premise that publishers should pay scientists for their papers because of the superficial similarity between academic publishing and other types of publishing, but that premise is simply false.

Edit - some additional thoughts related to the (very interesting and thought provoking - thanks!) comments:

I want to clarify that the main point of my answer is to emphasize that the answer to questions of the type “why is activity X acceptable?” is generally “it is acceptable by default” - that is, it’s up to opponents of X to convince everyone else that X is not acceptable if they believe that’s the case, and until they successfully do that, X is acceptable. I consider such questions to be loaded questions, since they subtly insinuate that there’s something wrong with X (without actually giving any explanation or evidence) and put people who engage in X on the defensive to “justify” their “bad” behavior. I think this loaded question effect is what makes the question “annoying” (as @Allure referred to it in a comment).

In my answer I was trying to make the point I elaborated on above. I focused on the legal aspect just because that’s what occurred to me at that moment, but the same principle applies if we were to debate the ethics of the issue (as some of the answers have done). I do acknowledge that there are some valid ethical criticisms of some of the practices of the academic publishing industry. But in my opinion those criticisms (while very interesting) are tangential to OP’s actual question. OP asked:

Why is it acceptable that publishers sell papers they didn’t pay for?

Note that this isn’t asking why it is acceptable for some publishers to make as much money as they do (I think there are some reasonable arguments to be made that that may very well be unacceptable). It’s asking why it’s acceptable for authors to not get paid by publishers for their work, which is a different question. Well, as an author who voluntarily publishes his work without asking for or expecting to be paid royalties by the publisher, I find this a bit offensive, as it’s effectively accusing me of being complicit in an activity insinuated to be shady or immoral, or alternatively suggesting that I’m some sort of victim of predatory practices. I’m neither of those things.

The most correct answer in my opinion is the one in David Richerby’s answer, which is to point out that this is a loaded question based on a false premise. I expanded on David’s idea a bit more. The bottom line is that it’s acceptable for authors to let others publish their work without asking to get paid, and it’s acceptable for publishers to publish works that authors allow them to. The larger debate about academic publishing is an important one and will go on, but this question is (in my very humble opinion) not framed in a way that makes it a helpful part of that debate.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 13 at 2:59

This is not a unique situation. Consider film festivals: you make a movie, submit it to the festival which then is free to earn money by selling tickets to the spectators. There's more: prestigious festivals sell tickets and have submission fees for the authors.

The intangible product being sold here is reputation. Other researchers will trust your paper more if they see it in a journal they know, compared to a paper you put on your homepage. And prospective employers will prefer someone with publications in a journal over someone who only submitted papers in arXiv.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 17 at 16:00

Your question is based on the false premise that it is only possible to sell something if you paid money for it yourself. A mining company can sell you coal without having to pay anyone for that coal. A farmer can sell you milk or eggs without paying anyone for them. A babysitter can charge you for looking after your child without paying anyone to acquire the ability to look after children.

I'm not claiming that any of these situations is an analogy for academic publishing but they do show that the idea that you can only sell something if you paid somebody for it first isn't at all true.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 13 at 3:00

I certainly can't and won't try to justify all of the practices of publishers but it is useful to consider a couple of things.

First is that the "market" for any given math paper, say, is extremely small. If the publication is on paper, then the costs, if we consider everything are very high. Even if papers aren't reviewed, they often need to be edited by a professional as not every author is native in the language of the publication. There may be, even in this age, typesetting involved. Plus printing, shipping, etc. There isn't a business model there, so no one would agree to take on publishing of your paper if all costs had to be paid. If they did, the price would have to be extremely high, reducing the market further. As a result, publishers try to avoid a number of costs including payment to authors and reviewers.

In the olden days, authors published their own "tracts" by paying a printer to do the physical stuff and not using anything but (at most) informal reviewing. They would then sell the publications themselves, sometimes on street corners, or contract with other people who did. This was fine if you were in a university town, but not so fine if you wanted a publication created a few hundred miles away. But publishers need a business model, even if it is flawed.

But also, consider a world in which everyone was properly compensated. What would be the characteristics of that world? There are several options. One is that only the most popular writers could get published as that might increase sales to the journal. Competition might ensue, even extreme competition. There would be competition by journals to publish the most popular authors, but there would also be competition between authors to be the most popular authors. It would be hard for a new academic to break in to such a world, perhaps.

Another possible publishing option would be the advertising model. But who would want to advertise in a journal containing abstract, possibly obscure, mathematics. Actually we do have such journals in some fields. They come and go, but they seldom pay authors in any case. And they seldom last very long (a few years at most) making old material difficult to find.

But, the fundamental reason that publishers can use a flawed model in the first place is that, in academia, money isn't the coin of the realm. Recognition by peers is what makes you "rich" in academe. Publishers do provide that - even for new members of the profession. But without a business model they can't and won't.


Let me add a note about another kind of publishing. Popular music. Since it is popular it has a large market and generates a lot of revenue. The artists do get paid. But it is a sad fact of life that very few musical artists, even those with platinum albums, actually make enough from their published music to live on the proceeds. Most of them make a living by going on the road and giving concerts. It never ends. That is why you still see rockers in their 70's giving concerts. Lyle Lovett has gone on record that he has never gotten a statement from his music publisher on which the bottom line was positive. The costs eat up everything - but that includes payments to stockholders, of course, without whom there would be no publishing business at all.


Another publishing model with flaws is textbook publishing. Textbooks now cost around $100US or even more. Of this, the author normally gets around $5. But the costs are high and the market is small. In the case of books, I've always had a professional editor, even for my native language. Figures in the book may need to be remade by a professional for use, depending on the production process. Except for a few courses like Calculus 101 or Economics 101, the market is very small. Very few authors get rich writing textbooks - though many dream to do so.


Let me add that in my lifetime, but long ago, there was a viable not-for-profit publishing model in Mathematics. The American Mathematical Society (AMS) is a professional membership organization. It publishes a number of journals, including the Transactions of the AMS. It is intended for longer papers, not suitable for shorter papers. Anyone could submit a paper to the journal and it would get both editorial and review services, along with, if accepted, production services. This was before the internet and so paper publishing was the only option.

If a paper was accepted there were page charges charged to the paper. They were quite steep, actually. If the author was grant funded then the grant source, normally the government, paid the charges. If the author had no grant, then the charges were sent to the author's institution instead. If, for any reason, the institution refused to pay the charges, they were just absorbed by the AMS and not charged to the author. Thus, the membership as a whole, paid, or page charges were high enough to cover the cases in which they wouldn't be paid. This was a form of socialism, of course, and some people hate that now.

But, for some reason, that isn't the dominant publishing model anymore. I suspect, but don't have the data, that it was simply a case that the model didn't scale well as there was an increase in the number of mathematicians and hence papers.

Non-profit, low cost models do exist, but, as I've said here and in the comments, all of the forces need to be considered in the design of such a model. If you ignore any of them, the model simply won't work for long and its defects will overcome it. But even a failed model, such as the current one, which as failed because it hasn't kept up with electronic communication, has inertia behind it that also needs to be overcome if you want to replace it with a better model.

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    I believe all your conclusions hinge on the axiom that academic publishing should be a business. Why do we force ourselves to contrive a market in existence where there is none? – user2357 Sep 10 at 17:58
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    I feel like a lot of this answer is aimed at a period in time much before the present internet age. It seems that one could deduce from your arguments the nonexistence of websites like the arXiv. Since the arXiv does exist and does host papers essentially for free, your arguments seem fishy to me. In fact you do not need even to pay the minimal price for your own website in order to publish your material on the internet. Moreover, publishers don't pay for referees: editors do the work of finding and persuading referees, who provide that service free of charge. – Pete L. Clark Sep 10 at 19:02
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    ....You are, aware, I trust, that there are reputable journals that are freely available online, and that the refereeing process for these journals is identical to that of the ones owned by the mainstream publishing companies? If so: why do you keep saying that the publishers provide this service? – Pete L. Clark Sep 10 at 19:20
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    @Buffy In 2015, the arXiv received ~76,000 new articles, and its budget was about $826,000. You do the math. Of course there are costs. But they are basically negligible when compared to the obscene amounts that university libraries pay each year to greedy publishers. For comparison, my department's library budget alone was 110,000€ in 2017. Elsevier's profits – not income, profits – in 2017 exceeded a billion dollars. Yes, $1,000,000,000, nine zeroes, more than a thousand times the arXiv's budget. That money can certainly be better spent. – user2357 Sep 10 at 19:34
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    I do not think "it's too hard to do" is a viable excuse. We're all smart people, surely we can come up with something. Regarding "it does support scholarship - somehow"; I think you mean scholarship supports these parasites. If people stopped submitting their papers there, they would go bankrupt, but if Elsevier or Springer folded, life would mostly go on as usual for most of us. – user2357 Sep 10 at 19:41

It's generally called the tertiary sector of the economy or service sector. In developed nations it's increasingly becoming the largest part of the economy. In other words, there are many, many other examples of a company selling "something legally without paying for it in any way". For services the costs are generally associated with labor and other expenses such as rent, infrastructure, etc. rather than the wholesale price or raw material like in the situation you describe.

Publishers charge (either the authors or the readers) for the publishing service. They do not charge for content creation. Content is paid for by research grants, university salaries, etc. A possible analogy is a telephone provider. They send you a bill for the time you spend listening or reading content created by third parties without purchasing said content. Social media, Internet search engines, etc. are other examples of companies generating a profit out of content voluntarily submitted by third parties.

Personally I find it very convenient to have publishers do the publishing work for me so that I can concentrate on my research. I have to transfer my copyright? So what? I'm not in the business of publishing papers, it's only a mean to an end. I know it's field-dependent but in mine the anti-publishers argument is a fringe thing.

It becomes more and more unacceptable to do this. Computer Science already freed itself to a large extent. Journals like the high impact jmlr and many others already proved that you don't need expensive publishers anymore for science. I published in both kinds of journals and the services are on the same level. Additionally, more and more funding sources prohibit publishing behind a paywall (one example).

It's acceptable because authors of scholarly papers accept it.

Consider a different kind of publishing: Is it acceptable that publishers print advertisements without paying the creators of the advertisement? Indeed, publishers demand that the creators of the advertisement pay THEM. How do they get away with this? Why don't advertisers refuse to supply magazines with ads unless they are paid for them?

The obvious reason is because the advertiser receives a benefit, or hopes to receive a benefit, from having the ad published. Namely, he hopes that it will generate sales that will more than cover the cost of publishing the ad.

So why don't authors of scholarly papers refuse to submit articles to journals unless they are paid for them? Because the authors of these papers believe that they receive a benefit from having their paper published. Namely, they get their discoveries and ideas "out there" and build a professional reputation.

To the author, the benefit of getting published is compensation itself. He doesn't need to also receive cash for him to consider it worth his while to submit his paper to a journal. There are plenty of authors who feel this way, so publishers have no incentive to offer cash. If publishers found that they had a hard time getting enough papers to fill their pages, one obvious option they'd consider would be paying for material. But as they apparently get plenty of articles without paying, they have no incentive to offer to pay.

  • I like the advertising comparison, but dislike the first sentence. A lot of things we'd find quite unacceptable were accepted during long stretches of history. Were they really 'acceptable' before, or just the status quo? – Anyon Sep 14 at 18:14
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    The sentence is literally true. If authors accept the practice, then it is acceptable by definition. – Michael Kay Sep 16 at 21:42

I have never seen any other economic situation where someone sold something legally without paying for it in any way.

But they do. Maybe not adequately, but publishers pay for the papers that they sell by offering all their services to the researcher (editorial services, publishing services, marketing). It might be that a considerable part of the revenues of publishers is profit, but not everything. Even journals operated by scientific communities sometimes have to charge publication fees (example). In the case of open access publications, the publication fee has to cover all the costs, even those in the future.

The most important aspect for the premium that scientists pay in top journals is mentioned in the answer by Thomas which is the "prestige" owned by these high ranking journals. That would be very difficult to change. People are judged by the amount of high ranking publications they have. Funding agencies ask for these publications and, on the other side, are willing to pay the publication charges. Publishers charge the amount they think they can get away with. There does not seem to be a trivial way out of it (delivering the same results, but for a lesser amount of money).

Since boycotting top journals doesn't pay off for the individual, it's clear that a solution would probably require concerted actions of many.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 17 at 15:59

Is it expected to be changed in the future? Do scientists want to change it, or is this accepted by more or less the whole community?

At least one scientist (who stepped down from a full tenured professorship) wants to change it; he wrote a blog post "Why I stopped caring about peer review, and learned to love the work."

To excerpt this in part:

Today, thanks to the Internet, the sharing of ideas is a free and open process, and readers can form their own judgements about the value of ideas, whether flawed or polished. A good idea does not have to be stamped and labelled to be approved, and science is done in communities, without the central control of anonymous judges and juries. Preprint archives (originally distributed on paper by SLAC) have now become ArXive.org and ResearchGate provides indexed community based services, more efficiently than gross amalgamations of diverse fields by journals on a monthly schedule.

...

Science rarely waits for publications to appear anymore. The process is so painfully slow that when a publication appears, either everyone has already read it, or no one is going to. So much nonsense gets into print that it is scarcely a real accolade to be in print.

It takes months or years for a paper to reach print, and who can afford academic journals anyway? So, why would we not think: what if I just self-published my idea in a blog or a website? I could simply ask a smaller circle of people to comment honestly. And it would be searchable by anyone who might stumble across it with the help of modern search engines. Use the archives and the new social sharing sites. Technology can take prejudice out of the equation.

The blog is more focused on the brokenness of the peer review process, but his suggested solutions take advantage of the Internet age and thereby also address the broken finance arrangements of journal publications.

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