Update – Publish AND perish: how the commodification of scientific publishing is undermining both science and the public good

(since this post appeared 10 days ago it has been updated a few times which is why I am re-posting it)

Key messages

“Everybody is writing, nobody is reading, everybody is writing for nobody.”

  • Academics are spending hundreds of hours a year, getting their work published, in peer-reviewed journals, providing free labor to commercial publishing companies.
  • The pressure to ‘produce’ and grow is huge, both in academia and in the publishing industry; this undermines quality and the university’s ability to serve the public good and, indeed, public trust in science.
  • Open access journal Sustainability publishes over 4000 contributions in its current Volume 10 – where most contributors will have to pay 1400 US Dollars* to have their work published. Its publisher MDPI has close to 200 journals working in a similar vein.’
  • Sustainability has 561 associate-editors from mostly public universities all working for free for the journal.
  • Of all industries, the publishing industry has the highest profit margin according to a recent article in the New Scientist.
  • A transition in science is needed to restore quality, trust and a culture of co-learning, peer-to-peer feedback and dialogue, and to unlock the the power of science in creating  more sustainable world.

* Sustainability just announced that the fee for having an article published in 2019 has been raised to 1700 US dollars…


Let me apologise first, for this post has turned into a bit of a rant but I had to get if off my chest. Here we go:

The open-access journal Sustainability (IF 2,025) just published Volume 10, issue 11 which contains 508 papers of which – with some, often, negotiated exceptions – the authors, provided their labor free (that is, usually sponsored by public money to cover their salaries) will have paid its publisher MDPI 1400 Swiss Francs (about 1400 US Dollar) per paper. I looked into this after being invited by the journal to edit a special issue a few weeks ago. Below I share what I found out.


Dear Prof Wals,

We invite you to join us as Guest Editor for the open access journal Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050), to establish a Special Issue. Our suggested topic is ‘Higher Education and Education for Sustainable Development’. You have been invited based on your strong publication record in this area, and we hope to work with you to establish a collection of papers that will be of interest to scholars in the field.


I have published in Sustainability (Impact Factor: 2,025) before and am currently also involved in co-editing a Special Issue for the same publisher, MDPI, but for another one of their journals called Water (Impact Factor: 2,069), so my initial response was positive. The invitation seemed serious and the journal seems reputable. It was not one of those almost daily invitations from a bogus journal that usually starts with: “Greetings!! We read your paper on social learning and believe you could make and excellent contribution to our forthcoming issue in Preventative Cardiological Medicine” (usually a journal on a topic I know nothing about) and ends with something like: “I hope you have good days ahead”. No, this one was serious and caught my interest.

I responded by saying that I found the proposed topic a bit outdated – there is a lot available and being done in the area of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (in fact there is an entire journal on the subject that’s been around for more than 20 years) but that I would like to focus on the role of higher education in sustainability transitions. The assistant-editor responded immediately that that would be fine and she sent me the template to fill out. I drafted a text for a Call for Papers with input from two colleagues and asked her if the text was fine. Instead of getting a reply I received a link to the Special Issue Announcement (will be removed shortly by MDPI at our request).

“Wow, that went really fast,” I thought. Then, just days later, I received an invitation from another colleague working in more or less the same field:

“We write to invite submissions of papers to a Special Issue of the Sustainability Journal focusing on “Innovation, Higher Education and Sustainable Futures” which we are editing. We think that the work you are doing in this area would make an excellent contribution to this journal.”

I was very surprised: basically, our SI would be competing with that of my colleagues which is on more on less the same topic! Why did the editors not check for overlap or connect us? I then decided to have a look at the journal’s special issue website and was shocked to find that at the moment “Sustainability” has planned about 200 (!) Special Issues  for the year 2019 have a look here….

Let’s think about this. Sustainability publishes 12 issues per Volume and integrates these ‘special issues’ in one of those issues. On average each issue will have 10 articles normally, I figured naively, based on old times when publishers would actually print journals, but then I started thinking: how can they cram in all these special issue articles in the 12 issues of a volume? This became clear yesterday when I received an advertisement from MDPI announcing its ‘release’ of Sustainability’s Volume 10, Issue 11 titled: Historic Rural Landscapes: Sustainable Planning Strategies and Action Criteria. The Italian Experience in the Global and European Context.

In the email the table of contents was embedded and I started scrolling down to read some of the titles. Then something odd seemed to be happening, there was no end to the list of papers; I kept on scrolling and scrolling… How many papers are in one volume I wondered… well 508!  Feel free to check this here.

So, I then checked Issue 10: 468 articles…, Issue 9:  401 articles, and noted that with every new issue the number of published papers tends to go up. On average the journal has published just over 380 articles per issue this year which will result in about 4560 articles. Now for some of the editorial papers and for some other papers, authors will get their open access fee waived. Let us assume that about 10% of all papers will have the fee of 1400 US Dollar waived. The total revenue for 2018 for this MDPI journal would be 1400 x 4100 = 5.740.000 US Dollar.

Now, figure this, MDPI publishes more than two-hundred journals varying from the Journal of Acoustics to the Journal of World Electric Vehicles, all using more or less the same business model. Here is a list of MDPI-s journals And let us not forget the other big publishers like Taylor & Francis/Routledge, Elsevier, Springer, etc. who use the same or a similar model.

Now, to be fair, I must say that scrolling down the ToC of Vol. 10 (11), I saw many intriguing titles and some very inspiring and high-quality authors: there is some good work out there and indeed it is open access – that’s what the 1400 US pays for after all… But all the journal needs to do is to invite lots of Special Issue editors (when telling this story to colleagues at an international conference, it seemed that everybody there had been asked recently to do a SI…), have a good manuscript management system with a big reviewer database and have a good website where papers can be easily downloaded, plus they need mechanisms to make sure that the impact factor of the journal goes up (that’s another blog post…). They don’t need to print anything anymore, neither do they need to do any graphic design work as nowadays people submitting need to do that themselves in accordance the journal’s instructions.

The job of the assisting editor is really one of acquisition editor: soliciting special issues and making academics responsible for gathering content, reviewing content, editing content, citing content, all for free! I would not be surprised if journals and editors receive bonuses based on growth in revenue. The whole industry is driven by targets, growth and expansion. This leads to a lot of pressure on everybody involved which undermines scientific quality. See below an example of this: “An Aberdeen University researcher resigned from a prestigious international journal after claiming she was put under pressure to do “mediocre” work.” Aberdeen researcher washes her hands off of overbearing publisher(excerpt below)


To return to the journal Sustainability… since the first version of this post appeared there has been a lot of activity on twitter with lots of comments, including the one below.


Sadly our ‘business’ of academia has been contaminated by the same modus operandi: an increase in the production of papers and number of citations and the growth of one’s ‘h-factor’ (see an older post about this here), is driving much of what we do today. Quantity over quality. Who has time to review, to read with intend and concentration, to organise a seminar or a debate? All activities for which no brownie points can be earned but essential for scientific quality.

Academics trying to stay on top of their game or trying to climb the tenure track ladder, are frantically trying to get their work published, all working for free for the private sector, paid for by, often, public money, then having to pay the journal to make the publicly funded research accessible for ‘free’ to the public. This leads to absurd performances: I know of colleagues, some with whom I have co-authored papers, who average one scientific peer-reviewed article per week, per week

As suggested already, all this also has implications for the quality of the work of course: as people only get rewarded for their production (published papers) and not for their contributions to assuring quality (e.g. reviewing and critical reading), the quality of the review process goes down rapidly as both the people working for the publishing industry and the academic industry need to achieve their targets and show growth to remain competitive and to climb the rankings.

There is a huge unsettling paradox in contemporary academia where everybody is writing while nobody seems to be reading, really, which means that everybody is writing for nobody. This also makes me wonder: what does it mean to be cited? In the meantime, all that time we spend behind a screen making letters flow from our brains, through our hands to a computer screen, is sponsored mostly by public money, which we then move to the publishing industry, where the top management and the shareholders are all anticipating the next quarterly earnings report, good salaries and bonuses, and good returns on investments.

HERE is a trivia question for you: what is the most profitable business in the world? You might think oil, or maybe banking. You would be wrong. The answer is academic publishing. Its profit margins are vast, reportedly in the region of 40 per cent. (Source: The New Scientist)


Needless to say, this is a system that will run itself into the ground eventually. Science for impact factors in journals will need to transition towards science for impact in society. This will require that the world of higher education and academia becomes more autonomous and independent from globalising neo-liberal forces that undermine academic quality and integrity. Fortunately there are counter-movements in science seeking to disrupt this tragically resilient system such as the science-in-transition movement, the global alliance for community-engaged research  and the living knowledge network (send me more examples if know of nay, I will add them here). Furthermore, mainstream universities are beginning to recognise the problem and are beginning to emphasise the importance of healthy working environments, societal impact, citizen science and knowledge co-creation. More on this in another blog post.

p.s. you may also find the Beall’s list of predatory journals and publishers an interesting resource to help you check whether a journal or publisher you are considering is legitimate (also read the cautionary note stating that this is a rather dynamic and fluid world where a list like this one needs constant updating)