Changes in scholarly publishing in the digital era

Vincent Larivière, Associate Professor at the Université de Montréal’s École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information and holder of the Canada Research Chair in the Transformation of Scholarly Communication

Larivière presented the findings from his work on changes in forms of knowledge dissemination produced by the transition to digital technology. One of the features of the passage into the digital era has been growth in the production of knowledge. Although the increase in the number of scholarly journals has been exponential since their creation in the seventeenth century, from the late 1970s, many people have been anticipating stabilization. The numbers show that, on the contrary, the exponential growth is continuing owing in particular to the creation of new discipline-based and national journals – and this has continued with a vengeance with the explosion of scientific research in China and India. The digital era, which began in the early 1990s and then became more widespread around the mid-1990s, is another major factor in the exponential growth. By facilitating the creation, updating, access to and dissemination of information, digital technology is leading to a major transformation in the way scholarly journals are produced and published.

1. Diversification of places of publication

The first effect of the transition to digital technology has been diversification of places of publication. Increasingly, the best articles are published outside of journals with high impact.

Indeed, since the advent of the digital era, the relationship between journals’ impact factors and the number of times articles are cited has been weakening. In other words, the most important articles are less and less often published in scholarly journals considered to be the most important. The reason for this is simple: researchers now find their secondary sources not in the small number of (paper) journals available in their environment, but in a much greater pool available online. If an important article has been published, it can be found, read and cited independently of the journal in which it was published. For example, at the beginning of the 1990s, a journal such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published nearly 9% of the articles among the 1% most cited, which was proof of the major concentration of high quality research in the pages of that journal. In 2010, however, the PNAS published less than 3% of the articles of that 1%. This phenomenon can thus be seen at the macro, but also the micro level, from journals’ specific points of view. Major multidisciplinary journals are declining while new journals, such as PLoS One, which are also multidisciplinary but published in open access, are growing, as are new specialized journals, which often have acceptance rates that are higher than the major general journals, such as Science and Nature.

2. Language of publication: Anglicization

The second effect of the transition to digital technology can be seen in the language of publication. Despite the discourse on internationalization of research and the need to subscribe to major sets of journals sold by the big commercial publishers, we need to begin by pointing out the importance of national journals, especially in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). In the case of Francophone universities in Québec, the most downloads occur through the platforms for journals in French (Érudit, Cairn and In short, for teaching (because students do the most downloading), the sets of journals sold by the major publishers are much less interesting. Worse: 40% of them are never even consulted. In order to put this portrait of research in Québec into perspective, a few comparisons are required. In France, Germany and Québec, respectively, where is SSH research published? German and French researchers still publish most of their work in their own national journals, but not the Québécois. The reason for this is that Québec journals are less well indexed, and in consequence it is less attractive to researchers to publish in them. This phenomenon is concomitant with Anglicization – seen by some as a form of internationalization – of national scholarly publishing, which has been visible since the 1980s. For example, in Germany and France, publications in the national language and indexed in the Web of Science went from 80% to 20%, while in Québec, more than 90% of articles published in SSH are in English. This higher proportion in Québec can be explained largely by the proximity of English, both within Québec and surrounding it.  

In the specific case of national journals, we find that Anglicization is even stronger: the proportion of articles in English in national journals is constantly growing. In their own national journals, it is becoming increasingly common for Germans to publish in English, as is the case with the Québécois, who are choosing more and more to publish in bilingual or English-Canadian journals. The French are still resisting this phenomenon. Given that national French-language journals are of crucial importance for Québec universities, the Anglicization of scholarly publication seems to be counterproductive.

3. Deceleration of obsolescence

The third effect of digital technology is slower obsolescence of scholarly literature. Typically, an article in the natural sciences or medicine is cited more quickly and becomes obsolete more rapidly than in SSH and letters. However, contrary to popular belief, with the transition to digital technology, the lifespan of scholarly documents has become longer – older and older material is being cited – and this is true across all disciplines. More specifically, the average age of documents cited has gone from 11 to 13 years. This leads us to think that a 12-month embargo on scholarly articles will not make them obsolete, especially in the SSH.

How can we explain this effect of digital technology on publication obsolescence? One hypothesis is that digital technology provides access to more recent knowledge, but also to older knowledge, thanks to digitalization and indexing of older issues. The issues can then be found on Google Scholar, where they are frequently consulted. Work in history and sociology of science also suggests that scientific revolutions are occurring more slowly and, consequently, that older documents remain scientifically relevant.

4. Concentration of publishing

The concentration of scholarly publishing in the hands of a few players who then increase their prices as they wish is probably the most vexing effect of the transition to digital technology. In 1995, the Financial Times predicted that Elsevier and the like would be the “first victims” of the democratization of the Internet: “The web had been created to bring academics together; now it offered them a way of sharing their research online for free. What need would anyone have for fusty, expensive journals?”[1] A decade later, we have to recognize that not only do researchers still depend on Elsevier, but above all that this firm’s control – and that of a handful of others – has increased. Indeed, in 2013, five organizations were controlling more than half of published articles: Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, the American Chemical Society (for science and medicine) and Sage Publications (for SSH). Small publishers, faced with the need to take the digital turn and not always equipped to do so, are gradually being bought by the wealthier.

However, the situation varies from discipline to discipline. While in chemistry, virtually all publishing is controlled by these publishers, in physics, the weight of national learned societies and dissemination of articles through discipline-based repositories, such as arXiv, make commercial publishers much less powerful. Nonetheless, for “international” journals in social sciences, the professions and psychology, the picture is rather catastrophic: nearly 70% of articles are controlled by five major commercial publishers. Given the importance placed on publications in researcher evaluation, those publishers control not only the modes of research production and dissemination, but also the mechanisms by which researchers are assessed, which has allowed them to increase their subscription fees by almost 400% over the last 25 years and to maintain profit margins of 30-40%. All of this is in a context, it should be noted, in which universities have seen their funding reduced and the publishers pay neither the reviewers nor the authors of the articles they publish.

5. Open access

Open access dissemination is one of the major innovations made possible by digital technology. Today, on the international scale, more than one out of two articles is published in open access. The most commonly used means is the “green route,” in other words, self-archiving of the final version, before it is laid out by the journal. A smaller proportion of articles take the “golden route,” in other words, publication in completely open access journals, and by the “hybrid” route, which is that of journals that have subscription fees, but publish some articles in open access if the authors pay for that service. In developing countries, there is even less funding for research that in Québec – where we are nonetheless experiencing a crisis that is leading us to limit our subscriptions to certain major sets of journals; research in those countries can be based only on open access publications. We thus have the responsibility to choose open access so that research findings can be accessed by all of our colleagues in developing countries. The other argument regularly used in favour of open access publishing is the advantage in terms of citation of articles. When all forms of open access are taken together, articles published in open access have on average 24% more impact, while a publication disseminated through the green route has, on average, 41% more impact.

6. What roles are journals playing in the digital age?

This examination of the changes to scholarly publishing resulting from digital technology has to end by placing the roles traditionally ascribed to journals into perspective. Since the beginning of the digital era, dissemination of research findings, ensuring peer review, and archiving knowledge are no longer functions exclusive to scholarly journals. Peer review is increasingly open, and many are questioning the present review system. For publication purposes, it would be possible to simply file articles on a web site without going through a journal. Finally, archiving can be done through institutional repositories or other web sites. 

However, two journal functions remain essential. First, they are indispensable for federating intellectual communities: especially in SSH, journals make it possible to create veritable researcher ecosystems around local and national research topics, and to bring them together at specific conferences. Second, since research has become a creditocracy, scholarly journals are irreplaceable as vectors of symbolic capital. They are essential links in evaluation of researchers and researchers’ work. Moreover, not all journals are equal in terms of symbolic capital. To begin with, English-language Canadian journals will have more value a priori and thus attract more submissions from foreign researchers than French-language Canadian journals, given that the English language is associated with greater “internationality.” Next, highly specialized journals will have less symbolic capital simply because they concern topics on which fewer researchers are working. Moreover, journals published by major commercial publishers are automatically indexed in the large databases used in the various assessments, and therefore have greater symbolic value a priori – no matter what the quality of their editorial board. Finally, journals with longer histories and that are thus surrounded by a larger community, already have greater symbolic capital, which allows them to attract the highest quality contributions.   

In conclusion, it is important to remember that, in order to be read and cited – and thus to maximize their symbolic value – journals have to be disseminated and accessible as broadly as possible. In this context, open access seems to be the path that should be taken by our national journals.

[1] Cookson, R. (2015). “Elsevier leads the business the internet could not kill,” Financial Times, November 15, 2015.