Scholarly Publishing and its Discontents: An Economist’s Perspective on Dealing with Market Power and Its Consequences

Innovation and Economic Growth, Media and Content, Internet and Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing

Article Snapshot


Joshua Gans


Core Economic Research, February 2017


Scholarly journals charge libraries high prices for access to academic articles. Activists protest such restrictions on access to knowledge. Some hoped that the Internet would improve access to academic publishing, but this effect is limited.

Policy Relevance

Innovative business models could make scholarly articles more accessible.

Main Points

  • The purpose of academic publishing is to communicate truthful and important discoveries, and to hold scholars accountable for their errors; fraudulent scholarship should be detected.
  • A journal is a platform serving both authors and readers; to maximize readership, journals should offer access at low price, along with excellent search functions.
  • Most journals are operated by for-profit publishers, which justify charging institutions like libraries high prices for access by publishing top quality articles.
  • Copyright law and other norms prevent duplicate content from being publishing in multiple places, giving publishers market power.
  • Authors prefer publishers to charge low fees, maximizing the impact of an article from widespread readership, but nothing prevents journals from raising fees after an article appears.
  • Open access journals offer articles free to readers; some offer articles for free only if the author pays for publication; open access journals have no reason to maintain high quality standards.
  • Activists try to improve public access to scholarship by organizing boycotts, strikes, persuasion, regulatory options, copyright changes, and piracy.
  • Open access and online articles are cited more often than print-only articles, suggesting that these articles are more available, but this effect is not large for articles of top quality.
  • Access to scholarship could be improved by introducing broader options for peer review, innovations in the structure of the article, and a system for sharing annotations and notes.


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