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Attention seekers

Big publishers’ ability to attract academic eyeballs helps explain why their influence is growing, says John Whitfield.

A decade ago it was widely assumed that the internet would democratise culture. Lower barriers to entry and infinite accessibility would see an endless diversification of niches, with everyone micro-tailoring their reading, watching and listening.

In fact, the opposite has happened. In theory, anyone can find an audience for his or her concrete poetry or dubstep mix tapes; in reality, blockbusters still dominate.

In part, this is because big media companies have—surprise!—adapted to the digital world. But it also reflects the human tendency to make complex choices simpler by copying what others are doing. The upshot is that, faced with instant access to the entirety of recorded music, people plump for Ed Sheeran.

You might think that academia could buck this trend, with researchers reading wherever their intellects take them and judging every paper on its merits. A recent study, however, suggests that, faced with an overwhelming volume of literature, researchers rely on short cuts and biases, which publishers are skilled at exploiting.

The Turin-based economists Matteo Migheli and Giovanni Battista Ramello looked at the trends in journals in economics, business, management and finance between 1999 and 2012. Using citations as a measure of academic attention, they found that the biggest four publishers in each field captured an ever-greater share as time passed. They also found that in 1999 society and institutional publishers were well represented among each field’s big four, but by 2012 the big commercial publishers—Wiley, Elsevier, Springer and Sage—occupied nearly all the top slots.

Large commercial publishers monopolise scholarly eyeballs by selling journals to libraries in big bundles, meaning that lesser publications can ride in the slip-stream of their prestigious stablemates. Online, recommendation engines can also help to keep readers in-house.

Once biases in attention develop, they become self-reinforcing. For an academic with too many journals to read, impact factor, a measure of a journal’s citations per paper, shows what publications others rate. This makes high impact a powerful attractant of future citations, as well as a measure of past citations.

Like other attention economies, academic publishing seems to tend towards being winner-takes-all, with the big getting bigger, and scale offering a decisive advantage. Any would-be disruptor, such as University College London, which announced plans to launch an open-access mega-journal last month, faces a stiff challenge.

Debates around scholarly publishing often focus on services to authors, rather than readers. But the ability to capture academic attention helps explain why the large commercial publishers have weathered a decade of technological and policy storms—open access, preprints, boycotts—so well.

Migheli and Ramello only cover a small segment of academia, and only up to 2012. The fate of society publishers is complicated, as many have outsourced their publishing operations to big companies.

But there is not much to suggest that the big beasts are struggling. In April 2017, for example, Scientific Reports—published by what is now Springer Nature—overtook the not-for-profit PLOS One as the world’s largest open-access mega-journal.

Indeed, the largest publishers are working on capturing academic attention at every stage of authorship and readership, providing workflow services across the publishing process, and cascading rejected papers to other journals in the same group.

Former BMJ editor Richard Smith, who has long eagerly anticipated the big publishers’ demise, recently suggested that Elsevier aims to become the monopoly supplier of academic publishing services, in the same way that Amazon, Google and Facebook have cornered their particular aspects of digital life.

Having one company to rule them all seems unlikely in an industry as old and well-developed as academic publishing. But consolidation, through mergers and the dynamics described by Migheli and Ramello, seems more likely than fragmentation.

Unless…Turning back to the music business, while big stars still suck up most of the attention, the major record labels are a shadow of their former selves. That disruption was, of course, caused by piracy. And that’s why some are suggesting—perhaps even hoping—that the pirate site SciHub can do to the big publishers what those trying to work within the law have so far failed to achieve.

John Whitfield is comment editor of Research Fortnight. See Scientometrics vol. 114, p 113-133 (2018).

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight