Anarchy and exploitation in scientific communication

Technology, greed, a lack of clear rules and norms, hyper-competitiveness and a certain amount of corruption have resulted in confusion and anarchy in the world of scientific communication. Not too long ago, scientific publication was largely in the hands of university publishers and non-profit scientific societies, most of which were controlled by the academic community.

Academic conferences were sponsored by universities or disciplinary organisations of academics and scientists. Most of this was done on a non-profit basis and largely controlled by small groups of respected professors at the main research universities, largely in North America and Western Europe. It was all quite ‘gentlemanly’, controlled by a male-dominated scientific elite.

Then multiple tsunamis hit the groves of academe. Perhaps the most important was the massification of post-secondary education – the tremendous expansion of enrolments and numbers of universities worldwide. Now, with close to 200 million students in more than 22,000 universities worldwide, the higher education enterprise is huge.

And while only a small proportion of these universities produce much research or aspire to the status of research universities, their numbers are growing as more institutions are lured by the rankings, which mainly measure research productivity, and by the natural desire to join the academic elite.

Governments, accreditors and quality assurance agencies are also stressing research and publications, in part because these are among the few metrics that can be accurately measured. At the same time, the global knowledge economy has pushed top universities to link to academe internationally and to compete with institutions worldwide.

As a result of this increased competition and pressure on universities and individual academics to ‘publish or perish’, tremendous pressure was placed on the existing scientific communication system, which was eventually unable to cope with increasing demands.

At the same time, the internet created additional challenges to the system, as journals had to adapt to new ways of publishing articles, evaluating submissions and other aspects of their work. What had been a cottage industry managed by scholars with little training in communication suddenly became a large industry. There are now more than 150,000 scientific journals, of which 64,000 claim to be peer reviewed.


First, major publishers and media companies, seeing that they could make a large profit from scientific journals, moved into the marketplace. Multinationals such as Springer and Elsevier are the giants, each now publishing more than a thousand journals in all fields. Journal subscription prices were increased to astronomical levels, with some journals costing US$20,000 or more. For example, Brain Research, published by Elsevier, costs US$24,000 for an annual subscription.

These publishers mainly purchased existing journals from other publishers or scientific societies. They also started new journals in many interdisciplinary fields. The multinationals ended up with hundreds of journals, which they ‘packaged’ for sale to libraries – which paid huge fees for access to all of the journals as they were forced to purchase the entire list.

In some scientific fields, submission fees for authors were imposed or raised. Journal publication became highly profitable. This system, of course, limited access to the latest scientific information to those who could pay for it.

Eventually, a reaction against journal prices by libraries and many academics led to the ‘open access’ movement: some new journals were established with the goal of providing less expensive access to knowledge. The established multinational publishers responded by providing a kind of open access, mainly by charging authors for permission to provide their published articles less expensively to readers.

By 2017, continuing conflicts between academic libraries and the multinational publishers concerning the high cost of access to journals have not resulted in any consensus on how to solve these complex problems.

Universities are themselves publishers of many scientific journals. A number of prestigious university presses, such as Oxford, Johns Hopkins, Chicago and others have traditionally published high-quality academic journals – and continue to do so. They have in general maintained reasonable prices and have successfully adapted to new technologies.

It is also the case that many individual universities worldwide publish local journals that have little circulation or prestige. For example, most Chinese research universities publish journals in several fields that have little impact and do not attract authors outside of the institution. There seems to be little justification for such publications – and they are likely to be damaged by the proliferation of low-quality ‘international’ journals.

Unsustainable strain

At the same time, the dramatic increase in the number of journals and the dramatic expansion in the number of papers being submitted to journals have placed unsustainable strain on the traditional peer review system.

The increase in submissions is due to the expansion of the academic profession, increased emphasis on ‘publish or perish’ and the rapid advance of scientific innovation and knowledge in general. But it is increasingly difficult to find qualified peer reviewers or talented journal editors. These jobs, while very important, are generally very time-consuming, uncompensated and even anonymous, a pure contribution to science and scholarship.

Another frightening and widespread development in the scientific communication industry is the emergence of ‘academic fakery’. On 29 December 2016 The New York Times devoted a long article to “Fake Academe, Looking a Lot Like the Real Thing”. The article discussed the proliferation of fake conferences and fake journals.

International ‘academic’ conferences organised by shady companies in India and elsewhere charge participants high fees to attend meetings held in hotels around the world and accept all papers submitted, regardless of quality. Academics are sufficiently desperate to be able to put on their CV that they have had a paper accepted for an international conference that they pay for these useless events.

There is also a proliferation of fake journals. No one knows how many of these exist, but their number is in the hundreds or even thousands. Jeffrey Beall, an American university librarian, has been tracking these fakes for years and last year listed at least 923 publishers, many with multiple ‘journals’, up from 18 in 2011.

In late 2016, Beall announced that he was no longer compiling his valuable list and it was removed from the internet. Although he gave no explanation, there is little doubt that he was threatened with lawsuits.

The fake journals are often published from Pakistan or Nigeria by invisible publishers and editors. They often claim to be peer reviewed and list internationally prominent academics on their editorial boards – people who seldom actually agreed to serve there and find it difficult to have their names removed when they request it. But almost all papers submitted tend to be published quickly once a fee, often substantial, is paid to the publisher.

What is to be done?

Without question, there is anarchy in the realm of knowledge communication in the 21st century. A combination of mass production of scientific papers, most of little scholarly value, tremendous pressure on academics to publish their work regardless of ethical considerations, the communications and publishing revolution made possible by the internet, the greed of the established multinational publishers and the huge new coterie of fake publishers have all combined to produce confusion.

The issues involved are complex – how to manage technology, accommodate the expansion of scientific production, rationalise peer review, break the monopoly of the multinationals and, of great importance, instil a sense of ethics and realistic expectations into the academic community itself.

The implications of these changes for journals published in languages other than English and in countries other than the main publishing countries are also unclear. It is likely they will be weakened by these global trends. Questions abound, answers are few.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. E-mail: This article also appears in the current issue of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.