Obviously this is a question in the light of the recent Elsevier boycott. Currently we do have an arXiv, maintained by academia and where researchers regularly upload parts of their work. In such a case,

  • Why do universities spend lots of money to publish in third-party journals?

The question especially applies to journals that operate with a rigorous profit motive. The subscription is very high, so wouldn't publishing in such journals affect the paper's citation count and deter the spread of knowledge about the work within academic circles?

  • Why should not universities collaborate to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals?

Moreover, given the need to conserve paper, why should journals spend on printing research papers? Wouldn't an online version suffice, as most people use only local computer printouts anyway? In other words, why can't we have a Wikipedia-like system of sharing research knowledge, having properly established standards for such journals?

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    In my opinion, this question is on the borderline of "not constructive", as the question is valid but the topic is inflammatory. Please ensure that all answers address the directly asked questions and do not veer off into soapbox speeches on "open journals" and whatnot.
    – eykanal
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 14:33
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    The topic of "open access journals" is a hot one, and can evoke emotional responses which often end up lambasting publishing companies. The question as worded is fine, I posted this more as a pre-emptive warning to those answering to stay on topic.
    – eykanal
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 14:46
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    The question doesn't make sense to me as worded. Universities have to spend money on journals they run themselves, just as they spend money on journals run by other publishers. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 9:01
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    My edit has nothing to do with connotation and everything to do with meaning. To splurge is to spend money on things that are not needed. If you can show me a respected university that does not spend money on journals (thus demonstrating that they are a luxury), I will concede the point. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 10:36
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    @Bravo: I guess you should have the final say about this edit, since after all, it's your question.
    – user102
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 10:56

10 Answers 10


This is a really big question, which unfortunately has no simple answer. Some short comments:

Universities have very little choice about subscribing to journals, as long they publish good papers, since faculty need access to those papers to do their research. The solution has to start on the publishing side.

Collaborating to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals is a fine idea, but either you need to convince universities to support this financially, or you need to recruit enormous numbers of dedicated volunteers. (Whenever this topic comes up, someone is sure to point out that volunteers run some free, high-quality online journals. Of course they do, but the question is how to recruit hundreds of times as many volunteers.)

Printing is a non-issue. Everything is already available online, with printed copies only for those who want them.

In a mathematics context, see http://gowers.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/elsevierstatementfinal.pdf and http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.1351 for more details.

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    See also blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/2012/03/06/an-efficient-journal for a careful breakdown of the actual (minimal) costs for one high-profile computer science journal.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 15:00
  • I downvoted because I think other answers are more correct and because phrase The solution has to start on the publishing side. is wrong.
    – Aubrey
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 8:20

My take on parts of your question:

Currently we do have an arXiv, maintained by academia and where researchers regularly upload parts of their work.

I may be on something of a crusade against arXiv users who believe arXiv is more than it is, more more widely adopted than it is. "We" don't have arXiv - certain disciplines have it. Other disciplines, equally valid as those which support arXiv, both don't use it and have understandable issues with the reliance on a pre-print site as a way to disseminate findings.

Why do universities splurge lots of money to publish in third-party journals? The question especially applies to journals that operate with a rigorous profit motive.

First, they're not paying money to publish in the journals. They're paying money to be able to read said journals. I've published in for-profit journals, even ones my university didn't subscribe to, for free.

The subscription is very high, so wouldn't publishing in such journals affect the paper's citation count and deter the spread of knowledge about the work within academic circles?

Not necessarily. Papers are often available from the author, inter-library loans, etc. Beyond that, how a paper gets cited is a far more complex question than just "Do you have to pay for a subscription", and I don't think Open Access journals have compellingly showed that the citation counts are higher for open journals. The readership and downloads? Probably, but in terms of citation the Open Access journals are still struggling with a perceived gap between their prestige and the prestige of the "leading" for-profit journals. Perhaps that will change in time, but there are ways to get journal articles that your institution doesn't subscribe to, and those ways are often fairly trivial.

Why should not universities collaborate to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals?

Some do - but for many the cost of laying out and producing a twice monthly journal would be distracting from the core mission of the university (or more likely, particular departments), and they'd run into staffing and budget concerns. Most don't have the money to fund what they actually need to do, let alone add a publishing arm that may or may not ever make money.

And those groups that are interested, like professional societies and the occasional university? They often turn to for-profit publishers to outsource it. For example Epidemiology, a publication of The International Society for Environmental Epidemiology is published by Lippincott. The American Journal of Epidemiology, which is put out by Johns Hopkins and sponsored by the Society for Epidemiologic Research? Published by Oxford.

Moreover, given the need to conserve paper, why should journals spend on printing research papers? Wouldn't an online version suffice, as most people use only local computer printouts anyway?

Because some readers want the paper versions. Seriously, nearly every journal I know has an "online only" subscription for less money. But if you want a paper version, why shouldn't you be able to get it?

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    @JeffE An inherent distrust of anything supporters say there is no issue with ;). Less flippantly, the pre-print arXiv system was designed around a core of fields, and makes sense for those fields. But consider a clinical trial - there's valid reason to question whether a non-reviewed, potentially revised result should be made public. Preprints are something of an unresolved issue for meta-analysis as well - preprints are a tempting, but potentially biasing, source of documents. Mainly the issue is that arXiv is an interesting supplement, not a replacement, to journals.
    – Fomite
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 22:21
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    @JeffE Keep in mind the notion of a "preprint culture" where papers are widely circulated before publication - or at conferences before they appear in proceedings - is not necessarily a general mode for academia.
    – Fomite
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 22:24
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    True, but I think it's medicine that's really a special case here, because of the public health consequences of publicizing results. (I'm skeptical that the meta-analysis issue is crucial, since publication bias is itself a major problem.) I agree that preprint culture is by no means universal, but this is largely for contingent, historical reasons, and sites like SSRN are expanding rapidly in areas that once had very little of this sort of activity. I don't think it will ever be fully universal, because of exceptions like medicine, but I think it will get much closer than it has so far. Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 23:10
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    @AnonymousMathematician Medicine may be a special case, but its a big special case (and its my special case, which means I care). The meta-analysis issue is probably a topic for another day, but the issue is that generally, if you don't think you can draw all unpublished papers, its probably wise not to draw any of them. That's why authors shouldn't use their own unpublished data. arXiv represents a tantalizing source of "grey literature", but especially for non-arXiv dominated fields, a biased one. The summary is that arXiv is neat, and useful, but not a magical fix.
    – Fomite
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 23:41
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    This looks lke an orthogonal issue to me. I agree that posting pre-refereed papers is not always wise, but preprints can be refereed before posting. (Preprint just means "before printing".)
    – JeffE
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 10:03

Nothing actually comes for free. Expensive journals tend to have established their merit with a long history, and managing / maintaining that quality across decades and editors has traditionally been the job of publishers. Why?

Although publishing can be a pain, but it is absolutely key to academic progress. We need to be able to rank contributions if for no other reason than to determine what to spend our precious time reading. Like all systems with power, publication is potentially subject to corruption. Publishers are traditionally seen as more objective than authors or universities, since their reputation and income is entirely determined by how good a job they do of publishing selectively.

You could imagine a situation where a bunch of universities got together, dedicated their resources (paid their staff's time) to make an objective publishing system that was not controlled by any one academic institution. But that is actually what most academic publishers are. In fact, many academic publishers are associated with individual universities.

The problem remains, who pays? Currently, in general readers / consumers pay, and they probably are really in the best place to know whether research is worth purchasing. But under open access, the authors pay. This can actually be immensely more expensive for universities than paying subscriptions, since they produce a lot of research. For example, my university spends less than the cost of two PLoS open-access articles per year per academic on subscriptions, but most academics are expected to publish a lot more than two articles a year. The other problem with authors paying is that there is then a moral hazard. Journals are effectively bribed to take papers, which may result in compromising the selective process that underlies academic progress. This would be a terrible cost.

Many academics self-publish by putting their papers on line or just writing blogs. This can be effective, but note that it returns to the problem of knowing what is worth reading. Generally, successful academic blogs are run by people who also prove themselves as academics by publishing in highly-rated journals, so this is not really an independent solution.

The short answer then is: because paying to read publications is the best system we currently know.

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    +1, but note that the description of "most academic publishers" here does not describe the biggest ones: Elsevier, Springer, Wiley. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 9:00
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    And of course "most academic publishers" is not the same thing as "the publishers of most academic journals." Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:33

Another (admittedly cynical) viewpoint is that the reason there are so many journals out there, and so many high-priced third-party journals, is that academics want to publish, and the system in which they work more or less demands publications in exchange for career advancement. The need of so many researchers from so many countries, as well as the fractionation of existing research fields into many sub-specialties, allows for this kind of behavior.

Although I would argue that "splurge" is the wrong word—researchers want access to as many journals as possible, and as a result, libraries are forced to spend substantial parts of their acquisition budgets on journals, which, with policies like Elsevier's, mean many of them will go largely unused in exchange for a handful of high-quality journals that aren't quite worth collectively what Elsevier charges for them.

The solution will be for the university libraries to join forces together and bargain collectively with the publishers. Working individually, they have no leverage. A hundred or a thousand libraries working together will have an impact.


One of the big factors driving the traditional publishing model is the tenure and promotion process. To win tenure and promotion, faculty members must publish in peer-reviewed journals... and journal reputation counts. Thus, many top researchers will strive to publish in journals with high reputation and university libraries will want to maintain collections that feature journals of high reputation (especially if those journals feature the work of its faculty).

Journal publishers point to the value added during the traditional publishing process, including peer review, editing and layout. This argument, however, is controversial, as many editorial and peer review panels are voluntary, unpaid positions.

Finally, electronic journals are not necessarily cheaper than print journals. Often, electronic journals are sold in expensive bundles and libraries are not allowed to select individual titles (this is how, say, EBSCO operates). Thus, libraries have to pay to subscribe to the whole database, which will include journals that are of little interest to the university.

  • Regarding to tenure and promotion process, I don't see the issue, citation count, H-Index and other metrics can be used.
    – user454322
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 17:06
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    I strongly disagree with user454322's comment. Those measures are extremely unreliable when applied to individual papers and individual researchers. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:38

Why do universities splurge lots of money to publish in third-party journals?

Because researchers ask for these journals, and the money is given by the university, and most researchers just recently discovered the cost of all this stuff. Now that we are all aware of the cost, and now that universities are running out of money, we, at last, want to change the way publishing is done.

Why should not universities collaborate to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals?

Because to run a journal, you need people whose jobs are to run a journal. This is not the work of researchers or actual faculty staff. At the moment, hiring new profiles in universities is unlikely. Moreover, maybe this should be done at a higher level (funding agency or state level?).

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    Could you elaborate on the second point? After all even in top journals it is the professors who do the hard work of selecting papers. If no printing is involved, why can't the panel professors decide about the selected papers and simply upload them?
    – Bravo
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 13:56
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    @Bravo: Some journals do work exactly like that—I'm on the editorial board of one—but with a few exceptions, they're slow to catch on. Perception of journal quality is no more rational and no easier to change than attitudes about car companies or brands of beer.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 14:59
  • You need a website, a server to run the website, a back-office to handle the submissions, at least someone to work the templates and to solve the occasional problems that the authors will encounter with these templates, etc. This is not a big deal, but someone have to do it, and the burden on editors and reviewers is heavy enough. Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 15:39
  • @Bravo "If no printing is involved" is a big if, and there's matters of copyediting, layout, etc. I've found the help of editorial and graphics departments at major journals invaluable at times, and "just upload them" means at this stage being shackled to LaTeX-type document formatting. I'd rather avoid that. Scientists, brilliant or not, are not designers.
    – Fomite
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 21:47
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    "Scientists, brilliant or not, are not designers." Except in mathematics, physics, and computer science?
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 21:54

Universities do not have to splurge on journals. If you think your university is splurging, then you must consider journals to be a luxury. However, a university with no journal subscriptions would not be able to attract faculty or students.


This is a very big, multi-faceted question. A hidden undertone is whether academic publishers make too much money, which is not something I want to discuss in this answer. Some thoughts on the rest of the question:

Do we need journals? If arXiv is so good, do we need journals at all? Can we do away with journals and just have everyone upload their papers onto arXiv? If you believe we don't need journals entirely then we can also do away with most of the publication costs.

arXiv does have operational costs, so presumably there'd still be a small (say ~$10) charge per uploaded paper, which is a far cry from typical OA costs. On the other hand this would be the end of peer review (at least organized peer review), it would make science communication more difficult, and authors from developing countries could really struggle. Whether or not this is worth it regardless is up to your perspective. This is the most drastic option; for everything below I assume "yes we do need journals".

Assuming we need journals, costs are to be expected. Who pays for these then? Realistically there're only a few options:

  • Authors. This is open access. OA has the fundamental problem of conflict of interest. Since only accepted papers generate revenue for the publisher, the publisher (and by extension the editorial board) is incentivized to accept papers. The COI can potentially be sidestepped by charging a (substantial) submission fee. Is the academic community willing to accept this, knowing there is a nontrivial chance of rejection? I don't know the answer to this; your guess is as good as mine.
  • Readers, i.e. pay-per-view, if you want to view the paper then you pay for it. This is likely doable but an administrative hassle. It's much easier to log in to your university's library and then access every paper, rather than work through payment every time you want to read something. (Also usage statistics for most papers are very low indeed.)
  • Universities. This is the current arrangement for subscription journals. A potential cost is that the university also pays for papers that its academics don't read (however you can be sure your library tracks usage statistics, which it uses to decide which journals to subscribe to).
  • Advertisers. Does not work in practice since demand for advertising in academic journals is too low to sustain the journal.
  • The general public. This is how things work for non-academic books: the author writes, gets paid a royalty, and the general public pays for the books. The problem with this is that academic papers are pretty bloody impossible to sell to the general public. They're so dense that undergraduates can't understand them, let alone the general public.
  • Funding agencies. "Someone" pays the publisher, which then operates the journal with free submission and free access. This is the diamond open access model. The problem is who that "someone" should be. If it's a university, then we're effectively back at option #3, worded differently. If it's an academic society, then the question shifts to where they are getting the money from, and likely means they have less money to do other activities like outreach. If it's the government, then unless they put more money into academia, they'll have to move money away from somewhere else, most likely research funding. Is the community willing to take a collective funding cut so there's money to use for this? Again, your guess is as good as mine.

Ultimately, if you can think of a stronger business model, you can put it into practice and it'll probably supplant the former one. The fact that the status quo has largely remained is, I would say, an indication the current business model is the most reliable, however flawed it might be.


Publishing journals costs money. If a university publishes journals itself, it bears the direct costs. If a university subscribes to journals, it pays for those costs indirectly. Either way, universities must spend money on journals.

A discussion of why universities pay fees for some journals that are much higher than what is required to run the journal would be useful but not in the scope of the question as written.


In this answer I tried to describe the main strategies of the Open Access movement.

I would though address few points in your question:

Why do universities spend lots of money to publish in third-party journals?

Fomite says, "First, they're not paying money to publish in the journals. They're paying money to be able to read said journals.". This is an important distiction. Why universities don't always publish journals (not necessarily OA, for that matter) is more of an organizational issues. Not all departments have time and resources to do teaching, research and also publish peer reviewed journals. Many do, now, also thanks to free software like Open Journals System(as a mere example, these are the open access journals I used to manage for University of Bologna).

Peer-review is a crucial point here. The self-archiving strategy of publishing pre-prints in repositories like archive is very important for OA, but doesn't address the need of a validation of publication. The only decent system that academia has found to evaluate publications is the review of its peers (there are also scientometric indicators like Impact Factor, but they do not substitute peer review).

Why should not universities collaborate to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals?

Why shouldn't they? No reasons, if you ask me.

But read this great joke from Scott Aaronson.

Collaboration is the most crucial issue here. Academia is a highly competitive social structure. You compete for your PhD, for grant research, for tenure, for gear lab, for everything.

I'm no expert in "history of academia", but I do know that different disciplines (aka, different communities) have different attitude to collaboration. And I'm merely thinking about scholars collaboration between themselves in writing articles or doing research. When you need a particle collider in order to do research, you are in the need of different scholars, different universities, different nations to collaborate at very different levels. This is the main reason, for example, why the field of High Energy Physics is one of the most advanced in Open Access (i.e. "SCOAP3 is a partnership of thousands of libraries and key funding agencies and research centers. Working with publishers, they converted key journals in the field of High-Energy Physics to Open Access at no cost for authors"). Collaboration is difficult, and it is not what academia is doing best.

Academia is a very complex social and economic structure. You cannot fund a system in competition and then ask the same system to set up an mass-scale collaboration to take over the publishers that took advantage of the scattered monadism of academia in the first place.

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