It is common knowledge that the academic publishing industry is oligopolistic: a handful of large corporate publishers control the vast majority of the industry. Because it dominates so much of the industry, the oligopoly maintains market power through tentacular economies of scale and control of the publications which libraries must access. This is bad not only for negotiating over price, but also means that the values and practices of the larger publishers are hegemonic in their influence over what publishing should look like. I have written previously about how this shapes debate around the costs of publishing.
Although dividing the industry into a handful of ‘big’ publishers and a large number of ‘small’ ones is unhelpfully binary and elides a great deal of complexity in publishing, there is still an unavoidable issue that publishing is both concentrated and becoming more consolidated. It is (usually) taken as a bad thing that a handful of multinational for-profit companies control scholarly communication. Objections to certain policy interventions, business models and approaches to open access are often predicated on the fact that big publishers will be able to use their size to their benefit, thus consolidating the industry further.
Having commissioned a report on how smaller publishers should not be locked out of open access agreements, the architects of Plan S are clearly keen to tap into the distinction between big and small. On the other side of the debate, the editor-in-chief of publishing industry blog The Scholarly Kitchen argues that aspects of Plan S in fact favour ‘larger incumbent publishers’ who can better respond to reporting requirements. From either perspective, it seems clear that size is important: people want to prevent big publishers from getting bigger.
Yet the implication here is that ‘big is bad’ rather than ‘small is good’. Policymakers and industry representatives want (or need to be seen to want) a fair and competitive market of commercial players where no one has too much power. The corollary of this is that we should intervene in markets only when they diminish competition, and we certainly should not intervene in ways that increase consolidation. But essentially, the publishing industry is a market that should function with minimal interference at most.
The problem with viewing publishing in this way is that it treats publisher size as important only inasmuch as one publisher should not have too much power (so as to control price). There is no implication that the size of the publisher impacts the kind of publishing taking place, only that one or two publishers should not be disproportionately larger than the rest.
Consider, though, that publishing is a situated activity. It benefits from editorial care, community involvement and scholarly experimentation. Revenue-maximising economies of scale, upon which ‘bigger’ publishing are based, homogenise these elements, water down careful human expertise and standardise publishing through cookie-cutter production processes. This has led to the development of platformised publishing infrastructures that seek to remove human expertise where possible and automate all that goes into publishing an article. In contrast to this, small, community-led publishing is something to be valued primarily because it is embedded within the communities that produce scholarship, not abstracted from them. My colleague Janneke Adema and I explore these issues in our article on ‘scaling small’. Bigness is not bad simply for market reasons, it also works against good — which is to say situated — publishing.
The problem for advocates of ‘small’ commercial forms of publishing (irrespective of their profit status) is that the market does not accommodate smallness very well. The market requires growth and is sustained by it. The need for growth is a problem for small publishers who want to stay small but whose work does not sit well with marketisation (often a problem for university presses, for example). It means that all forms of publishing are shaped by the market even if they hope to stand outside or work against it. With open access, this plays out through policy interventions that assume that publishing is predominantly about self-sustaining commercial operations, thus reinforcing the status quo. Of course, publishing is about self-sustaining commercial operations, but that is exactly the problem with it. We need visions for publishing that look beyond the revenue-seeking imperative and the need to make market returns.
This is why when you’re arguing that the oligopoly is bad, you’re really arguing to abolish the market. The oligopoly is merely a symptom of marketisation.