The size distribution of scholarly publishers

Added by Michael Jubb on 20 December 2010 12:24

We’ve known for a long time that the scholarly journal publishing business is highly-skewed; or, putting it another way, that it provides a classic instance of the long tail. Estimates of the numbers of publishers vary (on which more anon), but we know that the top ten publishers account for around a third of all journal titles, while there is a huge number of publishers who publish only one or two of the 24-25,000 journals published globally.

An interesting article by Jan Erik Frantsvag from the University of Tromso in the latest First Monday analyses the distribution of publishers of open access and subscription-based journals respectively. Frantsvag bases this on data from the Directory of Open Access Journals and from Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, and he notes a number of difficulties with the DOAJ data in particular: disambiguating publisher names is a problem, alongside the more fundamental one of determining who the publisher actually is. It’s also notable that he finds in Ulrich’s a number of OA journals not listed in the DOAJ.

What’s most striking, however, is that he finds the distribution of publishers by number of titles published to be remarkably similar across the two sectors.

Thus he identifies from Ulrich’s 8,566 publishers who publish mainly subscription-based journals (some of them also publish OA journals). That figure, incidentally, is more than four times the estimate of 2,000 scholarly journal publishers that is often cited, as for example in last year’s STM Overview of Scientific and Scholarly Journal Publishing. But Franstsvag finds that 7,168 of those publishers (83.7%) publish only one journal, and thus account for just under a third of all titles. At the other end of the scale, 27 publishers (0.3%) publish more than 100 titles, and account for just under 30% of all titles.

The similarity with the distribution of OA publishers is remarkable. He identifies 3,231 OA publishers. Of those, 2,839 (87.9%) publish only one title, while three (0.1%) publish more than 100 titles. The significant difference as compared with the subscription-based publishers is that the one-journal OA publishers account for more than half (55%) of all titles, and the three with more than 100 titles account for only 10.3% of all titles. And the difference here, though Frantsvag does not draw it out, is surely that there is as yet no equivalent in OA publishing of the dominant position of the big four subscription-based publishers, Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell, each with over 1,000 titles.  BioMed Central and Hindawi are not in the same league as yet.

Franstvag’s starting point is and economic one: that an OA publishing environment where single-title publishers predominate tends to suffer from high average fixed costs, and cannot benefit from economies of scale. His analysis suggests, however, that this is a problem for the scholarly publishing sector as a whole, and is not notably worse among OA than other publishers taken as a whole. Since his analysis is based on titles rather than articles, he almost certainly understates the dominance of the very large publishers in the subscription-based part of the sector. But that serves only to emphasise how the journal publishing is characterised by large numbers of publishers operating on a very small scale and probably at less than optimal economic efficiency.

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