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Moderator:  Calla Wiemer (calla.wiemer@acaes.us)

The State of Journal Publishing: Elsevier vs Academics

Loss of the Journal of Asian Economics to a takeover by Elsevier and less than encouraging responses from other publishers to inquiries about starting a new journal prompt these remarks. Why did the model of an academic society choosing editors, setting a vision, and developing content stop working for Elsevier? And is there a future for such a model?

The Journal of Asian Economics was founded in 1990 by the American Committee on Asian Economic Studies. During its 30 year run under ACAES auspices, the Journal was helmed by three Editors-in-Chief: founder Manoranjan Dutta (1990-2007); Michael Plummer (2007-2015); and myself (2015 to the June 2020 issue). The Editor-in-Chief served concurrently as President of ACAES with endorsement by the organization's voting members.

Initially, the publisher and owner of the Journal was JAI Press. Elsevier acquired JAI Press in 1997, and began publishing the Journal under its own imprint in 2000. Throughout, the Journal carried the branding "Published for the American Committee on Asian Economic Studies". And throughout, ACAES appointed the Journal's Editor-in-Chief, who in turn enlisted other members of the editorial board, with the publisher's concurrence.

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The State of Journal Publishing: Barriers to Entry

Starting a new journal has never been easy, but in recent years it has gotten very much harder. This is the sad reality the American Committee on Asian Economic Studies (ACAES) came up against in its own quest following loss of the Journal of Asian Economics to a takeover by Elsevier (see previous post). Start-up is inherently difficult simply because reputation is so crucial to attracting submissions, and reputation takes a long time to establish. But start-up has of late become even more difficult because the journal publishing industry is caught in a state of limbo between an old model that relies on selling subscriptions to libraries and a new model that features open access with the business angle of that yet to be worked out. The dominant player in journal publishing and its major customers have squared off and failed to come to terms.

The dominant player by far in journal publishing is Elsevier. As the first post in this series documents, Elsevier's share of articles published in the top 200 economics journals was an overbearing 58.6% for the last decade. Elsevier has exploited its market power to the point that such major customers as the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have finally halted negotiations and canceled their subscriptions. UC broke off negotiations in January 2019 (its struggles chronicled here). More recently, on June 11, MIT announced it was following suit. Many European universities have also taken a stand, organizing their resistance by country. In particular, a consortium of German universities canceled subscriptions in January 2017. At times, boycotts have also been staged in Taiwan and Korea.

Tensions between Elsevier and its institutional customers have long seethed over pricing. With deals negotiated on an institution by institution basis, Elsevier has had ample space to exercise its market power. The status quo has finally been disrupted, however, by a push for open access that is the natural consequence of internet distribution displacing bound volumes on library shelves. The University of California sought a package deal under which its faculty and students would obtain both reading and open access publication rights. Elsevier would not have it, however. While the company provides an open access option for all of its journals, the arrangement involves payment of an article publishing charge (APC), which it was unwilling to fold into an institution based package. APCs for Elsevier journals vary up to a maximum of $5900 (for the journal Cell), with most economics journals positioned in the $1000 to $3000 range.

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