Mid-tier journals ‘risk being squeezed out by monopoly publishers’

Biggest titles’ opening of sister periodicals is taking submissions away from specialist titles, researchers warn

January 9, 2018
Orange squeezed in vice

Middle-tier journals risk being “squeezed out” by big publishers trying to “monopolise” the academic periodicals industry, researchers have warned.

In a new study, academics at the University of Glasgow highlight how leading journals Cell, Science and Nature have launched more subsidiary titles in recent years. The effect of this, said Sabina Seibert, professor of management at Glasgow, was to design “a system for cascading articles from one tier to the next”.

“With the author’s permission, Science transfers papers to its sister journals: Science AdvancesScience RoboticsScience Immunology or Science Signalling,” she told Times Higher Education. “Some journals such as Plos Biology also allow ‘review transfers’, whereby a transferred paper is passed on to another journal, together with the original reviews.”

The explicit goal of this system is to help authors find a place to publish their paper as quickly and smoothly as possible, Professor Siebert added. “It also makes good business sense, because the system allows publishers to capture a greater market share,” she said.

But, amid a rapid rise in the number of papers being published in so-called mega-journals, editors fear that increasing pressure on scholars to publish under globally recognised brands comes at a cost to middle-tier, specialist journals.

For a chapter in Overwhelmed by overflow? How individuals and institutions create and manage excess, to be published by Lund University Press and Manchester University Press this year, Professor Siebert and colleagues Robert Insall and Laura Machesky conducted interviews with 14 editors and one publisher of journals relating to the biomedical sciences.

While the majority of interviewees declined to share their journal’s submission numbers, a common theme emerged that “not all journals enjoy increasing submission numbers”, with the journals most likely to have experienced significant underflow being mid-tier, specialist journals (mostly with impact factors under 10).

These journals, Professor Siebert said, “see their share of the market being taken by the dominant top-end journals from the Nature, Science or Cell families”.

“Some of the editors we interviewed raised concerns that this system strengthens the monopoly of the biggest brands, as the sister journals soak up the rejected papers,” she added.

This scenario raises that middle-tier journals will struggle to survive in a publishing world where big companies extend their reach and predatory journals offer a home for papers that would not get published elsewhere.

One interviewee stated: “The publishing world is in big, big trouble because those two groups – Nature Publishing Group and Cell Press – they have the most prestigious journals and…they are squeezing out the competition.”

Others complained that authors take such “trickle-down” arrangements for granted. As one editor explained: “I have found that a lot of my colleagues will submit to Nature, knowing that they’ll probably get it into Nature Communications, and because it has that Nature name on it…that worries me for journals like ours, because we’re losing some of our papers to them.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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