Rent Seeking and Financialization strategies of the Academic Publishing Industry

The Context

After what some predicted would be a downfall of the traditional academic publishers in the digital area, the top corporations in the industry have managed to not only retain their market share through a series of strategically crafted systems of control but also to further entrench their power into many aspects of the research and the knowledge production cycle. The historical aggressive acquisition of content and the ongoing business expansions within the top academic publishers has been at the forefront of much debate and scandal specially due to the power imbalances that it represents and the implications of such for the global researcher community.

The industry has been denounced for its oligopolistic structure, a study by Lariviere et al found that the top five publishers combined accounted for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013 (Lariviere et al. 2015). The concentration has also brought attention to the publisher’s unique business structure in the digital era and its reliance on systems of exclusion. Many have argued that the structure is one ingeniously crafted to exploit the free labor of academics that write, review and edit the papers that are then bundled and sold back to the universities at inflated and many times undisclosed prices which are for the most part, being paid by public funding (Bergstrom 2001). The pricing structures have also seen scrutiny because of their lack of transparency and the nature of journals as  non-substitutable products. As non substitutable products buyers are tied to a single seller as such working against competitive market pricing mechanisms and greatly contributing to the 300% rise in journal prices above inflations since 1986 (Eve 2014).

Main Questions

It is in this context of unequal power structures that it becomes imperative to examine the economic behavior of these top academic publishers, and to understand its implications to issues of diversity and inclusion within the larger discussion of knowledge production. How are these top players’ business strategies and structures contributing to the production of marginalities between global scholarly communities, specifically with those in the global south? How is this related to a lack of diversity in terms of scholarly publishing both geographically and thematically? This working group is looking to explore those questions by documenting specific dimensions of the economic behavior within the academic publishing industry with the purpose of situating it within broad knowledge production debate. The process will be guided through a series of theoretical frameworks including financialization, rent seeking and relational vulnerability.

Theoretical Frameworks

  1. Finacialization: The financialization literature allows us to understand some of the behaviors involved in the commodification of the academic publishing industry. The framework is particularly useful in situating such behaviors within neoliberal reasoning.  Financialization can be broadly understood as the “the increased linking, translation, and interactions between a financial mode of apprehending the world and other social domain”. For the purpose of this research, it would be looking at the ways in which academic publishers are emulating and replicating behaviors traditionally associated with financial institutions. The process of creating financial models for non-financial assets requires the active manufacturing of risks. Producing such risks requires aggressive processes of cultural, legal and political transformations.  
  2. Rent Seeking: Rent-seeking and rentership theory as applied to fields of STS and knowledge production provide a normative and analytical framework through which one can conceptualize the increasing returns and profit structures observed in the academic publishing industry. For example; concepts of monopoly rent as rent created through the “denial of access”  or absolute rent as created by a “social class that has the social right to limit access to assets and charge for their use” describe broader processes of exclusion (Birch 2017, Harvey 2002, Haila 1990,). The literature also speaks of rents as constructed through a proactive process of assetization as seen for example in the creation of knowledge monopolies through the production of a systematic shortage of supply (Zeller 2008, Birch 2017).  
  3. Relational Vulnerability: Relational vulnerability entails looking at the way in which forms of power are produced and reproduced and how they operate across spatial scales and dynamic relationships, thus creating inequalities and vulnerabilities (Blaikie, 1994; Bohle et al., 1994; Oliver Smith, 2004). As such this framework provides an analytical tool to understand how the financialization and rent-seeking behavior observed in the industry are actively producing new dimensions of vulnerabilities and marginalities for researchers/ knowledge producers across spatial scales. The relational dimension requires a closer look at the relational process through which the vulnerability of some may have a direct implication to the security of others. Vulnerability can be produced and reproduced over time by the influence of differential power dynamics and the relational processes that shape our lived environments (Mosse, 2007; Mosse, 2010; Collins, 2010).


The diagram below shows the first draft of our working methodology. The methodology is arranged in a series of projects/focuses that complement each other. Our initial methodological approach focuses on capturing and analyzing the history of mergers and acquisitions of top academic publishers. We hypothesize that this will show us an increasing tendency by these corporations to monetize their existing concentration of academic content by expanding their business into every aspect of the research cycle specifically through a focus on data analytics. As part of our research, we are also looking to document processes of financialization within the industry by undertaking a systematic scan of the financial literature. As informed by documented processes of rent-seeking and financialization, the project looks to undertake a subsequent qualitative study of the ways in which diverse actors across spatial scale involved in the knowledge production cycle are conceptualizing/experiencing such processes.

We are hoping that this open space becomes a platform for collaboration and discussion of our ongoing research notes, findings, limitations, as well as our methodological and theoretical approach. If you are interested in this research or have some suggestions feel free to comment on this website or contact us directly.


Work cited:

Bergstrom, T. C. (2001). Free Labor for Costly Journals? Journal of Economic Perspectives,15(4), 183-198. doi:10.1257/jep.15.4.183

Birch, K. (2017). Towards a theory of rentiership. Dialogues in Human Geography,7(1), 109-111. doi:10.1177/2043820617699105

Collins, T. 2010. “Marginalization, Facilitation and the production of unequal risk: the 2006 Paso del Norte floods.” Antipode 42(2)

Eve, M. P. (2014). Open access and the humanities: contexts, controversies and the future. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Haila, A. 1990. The theory of land rent at the crossroads, Environment and Planning D 8: 275-296. 

Harvey, D. 2002. The Art of Rent: Globalization, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture, Socialist Register 38: 93-110.

Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. Plos One,10(6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502

Oliver- Smith, A. 2004. “Theorizing vulnerability in a globalized world: Political Ecological perspective” Pp. 10-25 in Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters Development and People. London; Earth Scan

Zeller, C. 2008. From the gene to the globe: Extracting rents based on intellectual property monopolies, Review of International Political Economy 15(1): 86-115.