Academic journals have long enjoyed high revenue and exclusivity, but has the age of digital information shaken this profitable model?

In recent decades, academic publishing has consolidated to the point that five publishers now account for over 50% of published articles—compared to 20% in 1973 (Larivière, Haustein,, and Mongeon 2015). In that time, a substantial share of academic journals have been acquired by these five publishers, shifting the balance of power to these large, multinational publishing companies. In the age of digital publishing, we would expect barriers to accessing academic articles to fall. Instead, academic publishing has become increasingly commercialized. The shift in scholarly communication from small, independent journals to large companies presents a challenge to writers who want their work to be shared widely. 


To understand how the academic publishing industry has changed in the last 50 years, Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon gathered index data from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science and built a relational database for analysis. For the period of 1973–2013, they analyzed the citation data of 44,483,425 documents. In their article “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era,” these researchers present their findings on the shifts that occurred over this period in the academic journal publishing market for small to large publishers. In addition, they examined merger and acquisition histories for major publishers to determine which journals were operated by which publishers at a given point in time. This data was mapped out in graphs to show the change in publishing sources over time.

The data was grouped by broad academic discipline: (1) natural and medical sciences and (2) social sciences and humanities. The results of the study showed that in both categories, the share of articles published by the top five publishers increased steadily while the share of articles published by other publishers dropped. That shift was more dramatic in the social sciences and humanities, where other publishers dropped from publishing over 90% of papers and journals to less than 50%. The researchers attribute this shift to both the creation of new journals within the top five publishing companies and the acquisition of existing journals. In short, a large share of academic publishing has been consolidated into five publishers: Reed Elsevier (now RELX), Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, The American Chemical Society, and Taylor & Francis. It is important to note that some disciplines (e.g., chemistry, mathematics, and clinical medicine) saw higher rates of publisher acquisition over time than others.


The article demonstrates, with data, how this shift has led to the consolidation of resources into the hands of a few large publishers. According to the article, profits for these publishers have increased over time, but prices have remained the same. The ability to publish digitally—cutting out most printing, typesetting, and shipping costs—would suggest a reduction in prices, a cost savings that potentially could be passed on to readers so that research could be shared more broadly. However, this hasn’t been observed. The results of this article thus feed into a broader and more controversial discussion: Is the commercialization of academic literature running against the interests of science? 

“The top commercial publishers have benefited from the digital era, as it led to a dramatic increase in the share of scientific literature they published.”

Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon (2015)

Even if researchers think so, the article explains why academic publishers still hold an oligopoly: “Young researchers need to publish in prestigious journals to gain tenure, while older researchers need to do the same in order to keep their grants, and, in this environment, publishing in a high impact Elsevier or Springer journal is what ‘counts’.” Academic authors, eager to have their important work shared widely, have little control over these prices. 

In the modern age, however, there is hope: academic authors are finding new ways to share their work. The featured article, for example, is published in PLOS ONE, a free-to-access, peer-reviewed journal. There are plenty of research groups, institutions, and journals that are dedicated to the wide dissemination of research (including this Editing Research site). As these grow in scope and prestige, they will likely force the large publishers to make adjustments to their strategies. As the dynamic market of academic publishing continues to change, additional options will open up to academic writers.    

To learn more about the consolidation of academic publishing in the digital era, read the full article:

Larivière Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, Philippe Mongeon. 2015. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 6.

—Caleb Williams, Editing Research


Find more research

Check out a consensus study report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the importance of open access to science: Open Science by Design: Realizing A Vision for 21st Century Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018. 

Read more about the changing dynamics of the academic publishing industry and the growth of journal publishing in Carol Tenopir and Donald W. King’s article: “The Growth of Journals Publishing,” in The Future of the Journal. Edited by Bill Cope and Angus Phillips. Chandos Publishing, 2009. Second revised edition 2014.