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techsuch May 9, 2021 0 Comments

Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad forscience?In 2011, Claudio Aspesi, a senior investment analyst at Bernstein Research inLondon, made a bet that the dominant firm in one of the most lucrativeindustries in the world was headed for a crash. Reed-Elsevier, a multinationalpublishing giant with annual revenues exceeding £6bn, was an investor’sdarling. It was one of the few publishers that had successfully managed thetransition to the internet, and a recent company report was predicting yetanother year of growth. Aspesi, though, had reason to believe that thatprediction – along with those of every other major financial analyst – waswrong.The core of Elsevier’s operation is in scientific journals, the weekly ormonthly publications in which scientists share their results. Despite thenarrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. Withtotal global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between therecording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. In2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on justover £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, orAmazon posted that year.But Elsevier’s business model seemed a truly puzzling thing. In order to makemoney, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover amultitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors tocommission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute thefinished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, andsuccessful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, exceptthat scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientistscreate work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – andgive it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors whojudge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulkof the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating theexperiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists ona volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who,in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists writeand edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot thebill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief whendescribing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committeereport on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliersare paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred toit as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds mostresearch, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research,and then buys most of the published product”.Scientists are well aware that they seem to be getting a bad deal. Thepublishing business is “perverse and needless”, the Berkeley biologist MichaelEisen wrote in a 2003 article for the Guardian, declaring that it “should be apublic scandal”. Adrian Sutton, a physicist at Imperial College, told me thatscientists “are all slaves to publishers. What other industry receives its rawmaterials from its customers, gets those same customers to carry out thequality control of those materials, and then sells the same materials back tothe customers at a vastly inflated price?” (A representative of RELX Group,the official name of Elsevier since 2015, told me that it and other publishers“serve the research community by doing things that they need that they eithercannot, or do not do on their own, and charge a fair price for that service”.)Many scientists also believe that the publishing industry exerts too muchinfluence over what scientists choose to study, which is ultimately bad forscience itself. Journals prize new and spectacular results – after all, theyare in the business of selling subscriptions – and scientists, knowing exactlywhat kind of work gets published, align their submissions accordingly. Thisproduces a steady stream of papers, the importance of which is immediatelyapparent. But it also means that scientists do not have an accurate map oftheir field of inquiry. Researchers may end up inadvertently exploring deadends that their fellow scientists have already run up against, solely becausethe information about previous failures has never been given space in thepages of the relevant scientific publications. A 2013 study, for example,reported that half of all clinical trials in the US are never published in ajournal.According to critics, the journal system actually holds back scientificprogress. In a 2008 essay, Dr Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health(NIH), which funds and conducts medical research for the US government, arguedthat, given the importance of scientific innovation to society, “there is amoral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged anddisseminated”.Aspesi, after talking to a network of more than 25 prominent scientists andactivists, had come to believe the tide was about to turn against the industrythat Elsevier led. More and more research libraries, which purchase journalsfor universities, were claiming that their budgets were exhausted by decadesof price increases, and were threatening to cancel their multi-million-poundsubscription packages unless Elsevier dropped its prices. State organisationssuch as the American NIH and the German Research Foundation (DFG) had recentlycommitted to making their research available through free online journals, andAspesi believed that governments might step in and ensure that all publiclyfunded research would be available for free, to anyone. Elsevier and itscompetitors would be caught in a perfect storm, with their customers revoltingfrom below, and government regulation looming above.In March 2011, Aspesi published a report recommending that his clients sellElsevier stock. A few months later, in a conference call between Elseviermanagement and investment firms, he pressed the CEO of Elsevier, ErikEngstrom, about the deteriorating relationship with the libraries. He askedwhat was wrong with the business if “your customers are so desperate”.Engstrom dodged the question. Over the next two weeks, Elsevier stock tumbledby more than 20%, losing £1bn in value. The problems Aspesi saw were deep andstructural, and he believed they would play out over the next half-decade –but things already seemed to be moving in the direction he had predicted.Over the next year, however, most libraries backed down and committed toElsevier’s contracts, and governments largely failed to push an alternativemodel for disseminating research. In 2012 and 2013, Elsevier posted profitmargins of more than 40%. The following year, Aspesi reversed hisrecommendation to sell. “He listened to us too closely, and he got a bitburned,” David Prosser, the head of Research Libraries UK, and a prominentvoice for reforming the publishing industry, told me recently. Elsevier washere to stay.Illustration: Dom McKenzieAspesi was not the first person to incorrectly predict the end of thescientific publishing boom, and he is unlikely to be the last. It is hard tobelieve that what is essentially a for-profit oligopoly functioning within anotherwise heavily regulated, government-funded enterprise can avoid extinctionin the long run. But publishing has been deeply enmeshed in the scienceprofession for decades. Today, every scientist knows that their career dependson being published, and professional success is especially determined bygetting work into the most prestigious journals. The long, slow, nearlydirectionless work pursued by some of the most influential scientists of the20th century is no longer a viable career option. Under today’s system, thefather of genetic sequencing, Fred Sanger, who published very little in thetwo decades between his 1958 and 1980 Nobel prizes, may well have foundhimself out of a job.Even scientists who are fighting for reform are often not aware of the rootsof the system: how, in the boom years after the second world war,entrepreneurs built fortunes by taking publishing out of the hands ofscientists and expanding the business on a previously unimaginable scale. Andno one was more transformative and ingenious than Robert Maxwell, who turnedscientific journals into a spectacular money-making machine that bankrolledhis rise in British society. Maxwell would go on to become an MP, a pressbaron who challenged Rupert Murdoch, and one of the most notorious figures inBritish life. But his true importance was far larger than most of us realise.Improbable as it might sound, few people in the last century have done more toshape the way science is conducted today than Maxwell.* * *In 1946, the 23-year-old Robert Maxwell was working in Berlin and already hada significant reputation. Although he had grown up in a poor Czech village, hehad fought for the British army during the war as part of a contingent ofEuropean exiles, winning a Military Cross and British citizenship in theprocess. After the war, he served as an intelligence officer in Berlin, usinghis nine languages to interrogate prisoners. Maxwell was tall, brash, and notat all content with his already considerable success – an acquaintance at thetime recalled him confessing his greatest desire: “to be a millionaire”.At the same time, the British government was preparing an unlikely projectthat would allow him to do just that. Top British scientists – from AlexanderFleming, who discovered penicillin, to the physicist Charles Galton Darwin,grandson of Charles Darwin – were concerned that while British science wasworld-class, its publishing arm was dismal. Science publishers were mainlyknown for being inefficient and constantly broke. Journals, which oftenappeared on cheap, thin paper, were produced almost as an afterthought byscientific societies. The British Chemical Society had a months-long backlogof articles for publication, and relied on cash handouts from the RoyalSociety to run its printing operations.The government’s solution was to pair the venerable British publishing houseButterworths (now owned by Elsevier) with the renowned German publisherSpringer, to draw on the latter’s expertise. Butterworths would learn to turna profit on journals, and British science would get its work out at a fasterpace. Maxwell had already established his own business helping Springer shipscientific articles to Britain. The Butterworths directors, being ex-Britishintelligence themselves, hired the young Maxwell to help manage the company,and another ex-spook, Paul Rosbaud, a metallurgist who spent the war passingNazi nuclear secrets to the British through the French and Dutch resistance,as scientific editor.They couldn’t have begun at a better time. Science was about to enter a periodof unprecedented growth, having gone from being a scattered, amateur pursuitof wealthy gentleman to a respected profession. In the postwar years, it wouldbecome a byword for progress. “Science has been in the wings. It should bebrought to the centre of the stage – for in it lies much of our hope for thefuture,” wrote the American engineer and Manhattan Project administratorVannevar Bush, in a 1945 report to President Harry S Truman. After the war,government emerged for the first time as the major patron of scientificendeavour, not just in the military, but through newly created agencies suchas the US National Science Foundation, and the rapidly expanding universitysystem.When Butterworths decided to abandon the fledgling project in 1951, Maxwelloffered £13,000 (about £420,000 today) for both Butterworth’s and Springer’sshares, giving him control of the company. Rosbaud stayed on as scientificdirector, and named the new venture Pergamon Press, after a coin from theancient Greek city of Pergamon, featuring Athena, goddess of wisdom, whichthey adapted for the company’s logo – a simple line drawing appropriatelyrepresenting both knowledge and money.In an environment newly flush with cash and optimism, it was Rosbaud whopioneered the method that would drive Pergamon’s success. As science expanded,he realised that it would need new journals to cover new areas of study. Thescientific societies that had traditionally created journals were unwieldyinstitutions that tended to move slowly, hampered by internal debates betweenmembers about the boundaries of their field. Rosbaud had none of theseconstraints. All he needed to do was to convince a prominent academic thattheir particular field required a new journal to showcase it properly, andinstall that person at the helm of it. Pergamon would then begin sellingsubscriptions to university libraries, which suddenly had a lot of governmentmoney to spend.Maxwell was a quick study. In 1955, he and Rosbaud attended the GenevaConference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. Maxwell rented an office nearthe conference and wandered into seminars and official functions offering topublish any papers the scientists had come to present, and asking them to signexclusive contracts to edit Pergamon journals. Other publishers were shockedby his brash style. Daan Frank, of North Holland Publishing (now owned byElsevier) would later complain that Maxwell was “dishonest” for scooping upscientists without regard for specific content.Rosbaud, too, was reportedly put off by Maxwell’s hunger for profit. Unlikethe humble former scientist, Maxwell favoured expensive suits and slicked-backhair. Having rounded his Czech accent into a formidably posh, newsreaderbasso, he looked and sounded precisely like the tycoon he wished to be. In1955, Rosbaud told the Nobel prize-winning physicist Nevill Mott that thejournals were his beloved little “ewe lambs”, and Maxwell was the biblicalKing David, who would butcher and sell them for profit. In 1956, the pair hada falling out, and Rosbaud left the company.By then, Maxwell had taken Rosbaud’s business model and turned it intosomething all his own. Scientific conferences tended to be drab, low-ceilingedaffairs, but when Maxwell returned to the Geneva conference that year, herented a house in nearby Collonge-Bellerive, a picturesque town on thelakeshore, where he entertained guests at parties with booze, cigars andsailboat trips. Scientists had never seen anything like him. “He always saidwe don’t compete on sales, we compete on authors,” Albert Henderson, a formerdeputy director at Pergamon, told me. “We would attend conferencesspecifically looking to recruit editors for new journals.” There are tales ofparties on the roof of the Athens Hilton, of gifts of Concorde flights, ofscientists being put on a chartered boat tour of the Greek islands to plantheir new journal.By 1959, Pergamon was publishing 40 journals; six years later it would publish150. This put Maxwell well ahead of the competition. (In 1959, Pergamon’srival, Elsevier, had just 10 English-language journals, and it would take thecompany another decade to reach 50.) By 1960, Maxwell had taken to beingdriven in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, and moved his home and the Pergamonoperation from London to the palatial Headington Hill Hall estate in Oxford,which was also home to the British book publishing house Blackwell’s.Scientific societies, such as the British Society of Rheology, seeing thewriting on the wall, even began letting Pergamon take over their journals fora small regular fee. Leslie Iversen, former editor at the Journal ofNeurochemistry, recalls being wooed with lavish dinners at Maxwell’s estate.“He was very impressive, this big entrepreneur,” said Iversen. “We would getdinner and fine wine, and at the end he would present us a cheque – a fewthousand pounds for the society. It was more money than us poor scientists hadever seen.”Maxwell insisted on grand titles – “International Journal of” was a favouriteprefix. Peter Ashby, a former vice president at Pergamon, described this to meas a “PR trick”, but it also reflected a deep understanding of how science,and society’s attitude to science, had changed. Collaborating and getting yourwork seen on the international stage was becoming a new form of prestige forresearchers, and in many cases Maxwell had the market cornered before anyoneelse realised it existed. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the firstman-made satellite, in 1957, western scientists scrambled to catch up onRussian space research, and were surprised to learn that Maxwell had alreadynegotiated an exclusive English-language deal to publish the Russian Academyof Sciences’ journals earlier in the decade.“He had interests in all of these places. I went to Japan, he had an Americanman running an office there by himself. I went to India, there was someonethere,” said Ashby. And the international markets could be extremelylucrative. Ronald Suleski, who ran Pergamon’s Japanese office in the 1970s,told me that the Japanese scientific societies, desperate to get their workpublished in English, gave Maxwell the rights to their members’ results forfree.In a letter celebrating Pergamon’s 40th anniversary, Eiichi Kobayashi,director of Maruzen, Pergamon’s longtime Japanese distributor, recalled ofMaxwell that “each time I have the pleasure of meeting him, I am reminded of FScott Fitzgerald’s words that a millionaire is no ordinary man”.* * *The scientific article has essentially become the only way science issystematically represented in the world. (As Robert Kiley, head of digitalservices at the library of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second-biggestprivate funder of biomedical research, puts it: “We spend a billion pounds ayear, and we get back articles.”) It is the primary resource of our mostrespected realm of expertise. “Publishing is the expression of our work. Agood idea, a conversation or correspondence, even from the most brilliantperson in the world … doesn’t count for anything unless you have itpublished,” says Neal Young of the NIH. If you control access to thescientific literature, it is, to all intents and purposes, like controllingscience.Maxwell’s success was built on an insight into the nature of scientificjournals that would take others years to understand and replicate. While hiscompetitors groused about him diluting the market, Maxwell knew that therewas, in fact, no limit to the market. Creating The Journal of Nuclear Energydidn’t take business away from rival publisher North Holland’s journal NuclearPhysics. Scientific articles are about unique discoveries: one article cannotsubstitute for another. If a serious new journal appeared, scientists wouldsimply request that their university library subscribe to that one as well. IfMaxwell was creating three times as many journals as his competition, he wouldmake three times more money.The only potential limit was a slow-down in government funding, but there waslittle sign of that happening. In the 1960s, Kennedy bankrolled the spaceprogramme, and at the outset of the 1970s Nixon declared a “war on cancer”,while at the same time the British government developed its own nuclearprogramme with American aid. No matter the political climate, science wasbuoyed by great swells of government money.Robert Maxwell in 1985. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Hulton/GettyIn its early days, Pergamon had been at the centre of fierce debates about theethics of allowing commercial interests into the supposedly disinterested andprofit-shunning world of science. In a 1988 letter commemorating the 40thanniversary of Pergamon, John Coales of Cambridge University noted thatinitially many of his friends “considered [Maxwell] the greatest villain yetunhung”.But by the end of the 1960s, commercial publishing was considered the statusquo, and publishers were seen as a necessary partner in the advancement ofscience. Pergamon helped turbocharge the field’s great expansion by speedingup the publication process and presenting it in a more stylish package.Scientists’ concerns about signing away their copyright were overwhelmed bythe convenience of dealing with Pergamon, the shine it gave their work, andthe force of Maxwell’s personality. Scientists, it seemed, were largely happywith the wolf they had let in the door.“He was a bully, but I quite liked him,” says Denis Noble, a physiologist atOxford University and the editor of the journal Progress in Biophysics &Molecular Biology. Occasionally, Maxwell would call Noble to his house for ameeting. “Often there would be a party going on, a nice musical ensemble,there was no barrier between his work and personal life,” Noble says. Maxwellwould then proceed to alternately browbeat and charm him into splitting thebiannual journal into a monthly or bimonthly publication, which would lead toan attendant increase in subscription payments.In the end, though, Maxwell would nearly always defer to the scientists’wishes, and scientists came to appreciate his patronly persona. “I have toconfess that, quickly realising his predatory and entrepreneurial ambitions, Inevertheless took a great liking to him,” Arthur Barrett, then editor of thejournal Vacuum, wrote in a 1988 piece about the publication’s early years. Andthe feeling was mutual. Maxwell doted on his relationships with famousscientists, who were treated with uncharacteristic deference. “He realisedearly on that the scientists were vitally important. He would do whatever theywanted. It drove the rest of the staff crazy,” Richard Coleman, who worked injournal production at Pergamon in the late 1960s, told me. When Pergamon wasthe target of a hostile takeover attempt, a 1973 Guardian article reportedthat journal editors threatened “to desert” rather than work for anotherchairman.* * *Maxwell had transformed the business of publishing, but the day-to-day work ofscience remained unchanged. Scientists still largely took their work towhichever journal was the best fit for their research area – and Maxwell washappy to publish any and all research that his editors deemed sufficientlyrigorous. In the mid-1970s, though, publishers began to meddle with thepractice of science itself, starting down a path that would lock scientists’careers into the publishing system, and impose the business’s own standards onthe direction of research. One journal became the symbol of thistransformation.“At the start of my career, nobody took much notice of where you published,and then everything changed in 1974 with Cell,” Randy Schekman, the Berkeleymolecular biologist and Nobel prize winner, told me. Cell (now owned byElsevier) was a journal started by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)to showcase the newly ascendant field of molecular biology. It was edited by ayoung biologist named Ben Lewin, who approached his work with an intense,almost literary bent. Lewin prized long, rigorous papers that answered bigquestions – often representing years of research that would have yieldedmultiple papers in other venues – and, breaking with the idea that journalswere passive instruments to communicate science, he rejected far more papersthan he published.What he created was a venue for scientific blockbusters, and scientists beganshaping their work on his terms. “Lewin was clever. He realised scientists arevery vain, and wanted to be part of this selective members club; Cell was‘it’, and you had to get your paper in there,” Schekman said. “I was subjectto this kind of pressure, too.” He ended up publishing some of his Nobel-citedwork in Cell.Suddenly, where you published became immensely important. Other editors took asimilarly activist approach in the hopes of replicating Cell’s success.Publishers also adopted a metric called “impact factor,” invented in the 1960sby Eugene Garfield, a librarian and linguist, as a rough calculation of howoften papers in a given journal are cited in other papers. For publishers, itbecame a way to rank and advertise the scientific reach of their products. Thenew-look journals, with their emphasis on big results, shot to the top ofthese new rankings, and scientists who published in “high-impact” journalswere rewarded with jobs and funding. Almost overnight, a new currency ofprestige had been created in the scientific world. (Garfield later referred tohis creation as “like nuclear energy … a mixed blessing”.)It is difficult to overstate how much power a journal editor now had to shapea scientist’s career and the direction of science itself. “Young people tellme all the time, ‘If I don’t publish in CNS [a common acronym forCell/Nature/Science, the most prestigious journals in biology], I won’t get ajob,” says Schekman. He compared the pursuit of high-impact publications to anincentive system as rotten as banking bonuses. “They have a very big influenceon where science goes,” he said.And so science became a strange co-production between scientists and journaleditors, with the former increasingly pursuing discoveries that would impressthe latter. These days, given a choice of projects, a scientist will almostalways reject both the prosaic work of confirming or disproving past studies,and the decades-long pursuit of a risky “moonshot”, in favour of a middleground: a topic that is popular with editors and likely to yield regularpublications. “Academics are incentivised to produce research that caters tothese demands,” said the biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner in a 2014interview, calling the system “corrupt.”* * *Maxwell understood the way journals were now the kingmakers of science. Buthis main concern was still expansion, and he still had a keen vision of wherescience was heading, and which new fields of study he could colonise. RichardCharkin, the former CEO of the British publisher Macmillan, who was an editorat Pergamon in 1974, recalls Maxwell waving Watson and Crick’s one-page reporton the structure of DNA at an editorial meeting and declaring that the futurewas in life science and its multitude of tiny questions, each of which couldhave its own publication. “I think we launched a hundred journals that year,”Charkin said. “I mean, Jesus wept.”Pergamon also branched into social sciences and psychology. A series ofjournals prefixed “Computers and” suggest that Maxwell spotted the growingimportance of digital technology. “It was endless,” Peter Ashby told me.“Oxford Polytechnic [now Oxford Brookes University] started a department ofhospitality with a chef. We had to go find out who the head of the departmentwas, make him start a journal. And boom – International Journal of HospitalityManagement.”By the late 1970s, Maxwell was also dealing with a more crowded market. “I wasat Oxford University Press at that time,” Charkin told me. “We sat up andsaid, ‘Hell, these journals make a lot of money!” Meanwhile, in theNetherlands, Elsevier had begun expanding its English-language journals,absorbing the domestic competition in a series of acquisitions and growing ata rate of 35 titles a year.As Maxwell had predicted, competition didn’t drive down prices. Between 1975and 1985, the average price of a journal doubled. The New York Times reportedthat in 1984 it cost $2,500 to subscribe to the journal Brain Research; in1988, it cost more than $5,000. That same year, Harvard Library overran itsresearch journal budget by half a million dollars.Scientists occasionally questioned the fairness of this hugely profitablebusiness to which they supplied their work for free, but it was universitylibrarians who first realised the trap in the market Maxwell had created. Thelibrarians used university funds to buy journals on behalf of scientists.Maxwell was well aware of this. “Scientists are not as price-conscious asother professionals, mainly because they are not spending their own money,” hetold his publication Global Business in a 1988 interview. And since there wasno way to swap one journal for another, cheaper one, the result was, Maxwellcontinued, “a perpetual financing machine”. Librarians were locked into aseries of thousands of tiny monopolies. There were now more than a millionscientific articles being published a year, and they had to buy all of them atwhatever price the publishers wanted.From a business perspective, it was a total victory for Maxwell. Librarieswere a captive market, and journals had improbably installed themselves as thegatekeepers of scientific prestige – meaning that scientists couldn’t simplyabandon them if a new method of sharing results came along. “Were we not sonaive, we would long ago have recognised our true position: that we aresitting on top of fat piles of money which clever people on all sides aretrying to transfer on to their piles,” wrote the University of Michiganlibrarian Robert Houbeck in a trade journal in 1988. Three years earlier,despite scientific funding suffering its first multi-year dip in decades,Pergamon had reported a 47% profit margin.Maxwell wouldn’t be around to tend his victorious empire. The acquisitivenature that drove Pergamon’s success also led him to make a surfeit of flashybut questionable investments, including the football teams Oxford United andDerby County FC, television stations around the world, and, in 1984, the UK’sMirror newspaper group, where he began to spend more and more of his time. In1991, to finance his impending purchase of the New York Daily News, Maxwellsold Pergamon to its quiet Dutch competitor Elsevier for £440m (£919m today).Many former Pergamon employees separately told me that they knew it was allover for Maxwell when he made the Elsevier deal, because Pergamon was thecompany he truly loved. Later that year, he became mired in a series ofscandals over his mounting debts, shady accounting practices, and an explosiveaccusation by the American journalist Seymour Hersh that he was an Israeli spywith links to arms traders. On 5 November 1991, Maxwell was found drowned offhis yacht in the Canary Islands. The world was stunned, and by the next daythe Mirror’s tabloid rival Sun was posing the question on everyone’s mind:“DID HE FALL … DID HE JUMP?”, its headline blared. (A third explanation, thathe was pushed, would also come up.)The story dominated the British press for months, with suspicion growing thatMaxwell had committed suicide, after an investigation revealed that he hadstolen more than £400m from the Mirror pension fund to service his debts. (InDecember 1991, a Spanish coroner’s report ruled the death accidental.) Thespeculation was endless: in 2003, the journalists Gordon Thomas and MartinDillon published a book alleging that Maxwell was assassinated by Mossad tohide his spying activities. By that time, Maxwell was long gone, but thebusiness he had started continued to thrive in new hands, reaching new levelsof profit and global power over the coming decades.* * *If Maxwell’s genius was in expansion, Elsevier’s was in consolidation. Withthe purchase of Pergamon’s 400-strong catalogue, Elsevier now controlled morethan 1,000 scientific journals, making it by far the largest scientificpublisher in the world.At the time of the merger, Charkin, the former Macmillan CEO, recalls advisingPierre Vinken, the CEO of Elsevier, that Pergamon was a mature business, andthat Elsevier had overpaid for it. But Vinken had no doubts, Charkin recalled:“He said, ‘You have no idea how profitable these journals are once you stopdoing anything. When you’re building a journal, you spend time getting goodeditorial boards, you treat them well, you give them dinners. Then you marketthe thing and your salespeople go out there to sell subscriptions, which isslow and tough, and you try to make the journal as good as possible. That’swhat happened at Pergamon. And then we buy it and we stop doing all that stuffand then the cash just pours out and you wouldn’t believe how wonderful itis.’ He was right and I was wrong.”By 1994, three years after acquiring Pergamon, Elsevier had raised its pricesby 50%. Universities complained that their budgets were stretched to breakingpoint – the US-based Publishers Weekly reported librarians referring to a“doomsday machine” in their industry – and, for the first time, they begancancelling subscriptions to less popular journals.Illustration: Dom McKenzieAt the time, Elsevier’s behaviour seemed suicidal. It was angering itscustomers just as the internet was arriving to offer them a free alternative.A 1995 Forbes article described scientists sharing results over early webservers, and asked if Elsevier was to be “The Internet’s First Victim”. But,as always, the publishers understood the market better than the academics.In 1998, Elsevier rolled out its plan for the internet age, which would cometo be called “The Big Deal”. It offered electronic access to bundles ofhundreds of journals at a time: a university would pay a set fee each year –according to a report based on freedom of information requests, CornellUniversity’s 2009 tab was just short of $2m – and any student or professorcould download any journal they wanted through Elsevier’s website.Universities signed up en masse.Those predicting Elsevier’s downfall had assumed scientists experimenting withsharing their work for free online could slowly outcompete Elsevier’s titlesby replacing them one at a time. In response, Elsevier created a switch thatfused Maxwell’s thousands of tiny monopolies into one so large that, like abasic resource – say water, or power – it was impossible for universities todo without. Pay, and the scientific lights stayed on, but refuse, and up to aquarter of the scientific literature would go dark at any one institution. Itconcentrated immense power in the hands of the largest publishers, andElsevier’s profits began another steep rise that would lead them into thebillions by the 2010s. In 2015, a Financial Times article anointed Elsevier“the business the internet could not kill”.* * *Publishers are now wound so tightly around the various organs of thescientific body that no single effort has been able to dislodge them. In a2015 report, an information scientist from the University of Montreal, VincentLarivière, showed that Elsevier owned 24% of the scientific journal market,while Maxwell’s old partners Springer, and his crosstown rivals Wiley-Blackwell, controlled about another 12% each. These three companies accountedfor half the market. (An Elsevier representative familiar with the report toldme that by their own estimate they publish only 16% of the scientificliterature.)“Despite my giving sermons all over the world on this topic, it seems journalshold sway even more prominently than before,” Randy Schekman told me. It isthat influence, more than the profits that drove the system’s expansion, thatmost frustrates scientists today.Elsevier says its primary goal is to facilitate the work of scientists andother researchers. An Elsevier rep noted that the company received 1.5marticle submissions last year, and published 420,000; 14 million scientistsentrust Elsevier to publish their results, and 800,000 scientists donate theirtime to help them with editing and peer-review. “We help researchers be moreproductive and efficient,” Alicia Wise, senior vice president of globalstrategic networks, told me. “And that’s a win for research institutions, andfor research funders like governments.”On the question of why so many scientists are so critical of journalpublishers, Tom Reller, vice president of corporate relations at Elsevier,said: “It’s not for us to talk about other people’s motivations. We look atthe numbers [of scientists who trust their results to Elsevier] and thatsuggests we are doing a good job.” Asked about criticisms of Elsevier’sbusiness model, Reller said in an email that these criticisms overlooked “allthe things that publishers do to add value – above and beyond thecontributions that public-sector funding brings”. That, he said, is what theywere charging for.In a sense, it is not any one publisher’s fault that the scientific worldseems to bend to the industry’s gravitational pull. When governments includingthose of China and Mexico offer financial bonuses for publishing in high-impact journals, they are not responding to a demand by any specificpublisher, but following the rewards of an enormously complex system that hasto accommodate the utopian ideals of science with the commercial goals of thepublishers that dominate it. (“We scientists have not given a lot of thoughtto the water we’re swimming in,” Neal Young told me.)Since the early 2000s, scientists have championed an alternative tosubscription publishing called “open access”. This solves the difficulty ofbalancing scientific and commercial imperatives by simply removing thecommercial element. In practice, this usually takes the form of onlinejournals, to which scientists pay an upfront free to cover editing costs,which then ensure the work is available free to access for anyone inperpetuity. But despite the backing of some of the biggest funding agencies inthe world, including the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, only about aquarter of scientific papers are made freely available at the time of theirpublication.The idea that scientific research should be freely available for anyone to useis a sharp departure, even a threat, to the current system – which relies onpublishers’ ability to restrict access to the scientific literature in orderto maintain its immense profitability. In recent years, the most radicalopposition to the status quo has coalesced around a controversial websitecalled Sci-Hub – a sort of Napster for science that allows anyone to downloadscientific papers for free. Its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazhakstani, isin hiding, facing charges of hacking and copyright infringement in the US.Elsevier recently obtained a $15m injunction (the maximum allowable amount)against her.Elbakyan is an unabashed utopian. “Science should belong to scientists and notthe publishers,” she told me in an email. In a letter to the court, she citedArticle 27 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserting theright “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.Whatever the fate of Sci-Hub, it seems that frustration with the currentsystem is growing. But history shows that betting against science publishersis a risky move. After all, back in 1988, Maxwell predicted that in the futurethere would only be a handful of immensely powerful publishing companies left,and that they would ply their trade in an electronic age with no printingcosts, leading to almost “pure profit”. That sounds a lot like the world welive in now.Illustrations by Dom McKenzieFollow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long readweekly email here.This article was amended on 28 June and 5 July 2017. Elsevier published420,000 papers last year, after receiving 1.5m submissions; a previous versionincorrectly stated that it publishes 1.5m papers a year. This article wasfurther amended to correct the date that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.That was in 1957, not 1959.

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