Understanding the Scientific Publishing Industry

In over 350 years, scientific publishing has evolved and shaped the academic community to such lengths that “Publish or Perish” is almost the “anthem” of science. But how did it all start? 

The beginning of scientific publishing 

Before 1655, scholars would communicate their findings via letters, books, and presentations (Hoskin, n.d.). One of the first scientific journals was initiated as a “hobby” project by a Royal Society of London member to deal with the increasing number of correspondences (Larivière et al., 2015). Peer review was rudimentary and often consisted of the approval of members of the society (Fyfe, et al., 2015). The peer review landscape across different journals was patchy and inconsistent until the XX century. Perhaps the most notorious example is that the Nature article in which Watson and Crick described the helix structure of DNA did not undergo peer review (Brümmer Jens, 2013) 

The birth of the Cell journal seems to have changed the take on peer review (Snyder, 2013). The founder of Cell, Benjamin Lewin, believed scientific articles should be finalized as “blockbuster” stories. For this, scientists would delay their research for years to gather all experimental data and had to pass the scrutiny of at least two to three independent peer-reviewers (Snyder, 2013). As this was in the pre-digital era, editors would send by snail mail typewritten articles to reviewers. Sometimes, the reviewers’ feedback had to be physically “cut and pasted”  and mailed to the authors (Hoskin, n.d.). 

The industrialization of scientific publishing 

Before World War Two, scientific publishing was in the hands of scientific societies (Larivière et al., 2015). However, by the mid-1990s many societies outsourced the publishing to commercial publishers that would cover cost- and labor-intensive tasks such as proofreading, typesetting, copyediting, printing, and distribution. This acquisition of societies went to such lengths that in 2013, five publishing houses published more than 50% of all papers of that year (Larivière et al., 2015). As commercial publishers started having broader portfolios, the subscription to journals increased and led to what is known as the Serial Crisis (History of the Open Access Movement, n.d.). Libraries were unable to subscribe to scientific journals, and the prices skyrocketed so much that in 2012 various libraries such as Harvard (Sample, 2012) and the University of California (Howard, 2010) declared that it was impossible to keep up. This situation, paired with the increased digitization of the journals that supposed a reduction of publishing costs fueled academics to protest the high subscription prices. One such example of such outrage was the Cost of Knowledge protest in which scientists would boycott commercial publishers such as Elsevier (Neylon, n.d.) by not referring to or publishing in journals of their portfolio.  

A new concept is born: Open Access 

In 1991, shortly after the founding of the first digital-only scientific journal, the preprint server arXiv was launched. ArXiv allowed researchers to share their findings freely. This set the ground for what later would be coined Open Access (OA) (Celebrating 30 Years of ArXiv and Its Lasting Legacy on Scientific Advancement – SPARC, n.d.). The first Open Access publisher BioMed Central was founded in 2000 and introduced articles processing charges which had to be paid by the authors (Quint, 2002). As more national, international, and European funders started to mandate researchers to publish OA 10, publishers started offering the possibility to publish OA in subscription journals. Open Access publications costs in such Hybrid journals can be as high as $11.000 (Bishop, 2020). These high article processing charges make OA unaffordable for researchers from low-income countries. With the idea of open access a new “inequality” was created (Parikh et al., 2022) 

What is next? 

The revenue of OA journals depends on the number of published articles. This has enticed publishers to process manuscripts as fast as possible in some cases comprising peer-review for maximizing profits 14. These predatory journals and practices are damaging the reputation of OA. 

A new model in which no publication or reading fee is charged is gaining popularity. These Diamond journals are community led and often not-for-profit in which everyone can publish OA for free. Examples of such journals are SciPost Physics and Chemical Science. The next road in scientific publishing seems to be paved with Diamonds! 



  1. Bishop Dorothy. (2020). Nature’s OA fee seems outrageously high – but many will pay it | Times Higher Education (THE). https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/natures-oa-fee-seems-outrageously-high-many-will-pay-it 
  2. Brümmer Jens. (2003). How genius can smooth the road to publication. 2003. https://doi.org/10.1038/426119a 
  3. Celebrating 30 Years of arXiv and Its Lasting Legacy on Scientific Advancement—SPARC. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://sparcopen.org/news/2021/celebrating-30-years-of-arxiv-and-its-lasting-legacy-on-scientific-advancement/ 
  4. Fyfe, Aileen, McDougall-Waters, Julie, & Moxham, Noah Joseph. (2015). Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the royal society (1665 – 2015). 
  5. History of the Open Access Movement. (n.d.).Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://open-access.network/en/information/open-access-primers/history-of-the-open-access-movement 
  6. Hoskin, R. (n.d.). Peer Review – A Historical Perspective: Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://mitcommlab.mit.edu/broad/commkit/peer-review-a-historical-perspective/ 
  7. Howard Jennifer. (2010). U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs. https://www.chronicle.com/article/u-of-california-tries-just-saying-no-to-rising-journal-costs/ 
  8. Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLOS ONE, 10(6), e0127502. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127502 
  9. Neylon Tyler. (n.d.). The Cost of Knowledge. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from http://thecostofknowledge.com/ 
  10. Parikh, S., Malcom, S. M., & Moran, B. (2022). Public access is not equal access. Science, 377(6613), 1361–1361. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.ade8028 
  11. Quint Barbara. (2002). BioMed Central Begins Charging Authors and Their Institutions for Article Publishing. Https://Newsbreaks.Infotoday.Com/. https://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17276 
  12. Sample Ian. (2012). Harvard University says it can’t afford journal publishers’ prices | Open access scientific publishing | The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices 
  13. Snyder, S. H. (2013). Science interminable: Blame Ben? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(7), 2428–2429. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.201300924 


About the Author:

Maria Constantin holds a PhD in Plant Pathology from the University of Amsterdam, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is working on an online platform called The Green Leaflet, which focuses on sharing plant science stories. You can find her on Twitter at @meconstantin001.