How the World’s Leading Academic Publishers Became Surveillance Publishers

Posted on May 4, 2023 by Glyn Moody

We’ve written on PIA blog about the rising use of workplace surveillance to keep tabs on what people are doing in offices and elsewhere. But that’s nothing compared to what is happening in the academic world.

Most people think of academia as a relatively slow-moving, genteel sort of place, where everyone is nice. Sometimes, sure. Most of the time, though, it’s the setting for one of the most ruthless and thorough-going exploitation of personal data anywhere, particularly when it comes to academic publishers.

Academic publishing is noteworthy for a getting its customers to do all the work, and then selling the results of that work back to the same people. And if you thought there’s nothing else they could do to increase their outrageous revenue… you’d be wrong. Academic publishers are looking to get into the data business and, if they get away with it, it’ll make them even more money.

How Academic Publishing Works

Here’s a rundown of how academic publishing works. To make things fun, see if you can count how many people don’t get paid along the way.

If you want to get a job, keep a job, or just stay relevant in academia, publishing papers is a must. Publishing is also a great way to let others know about your academic research, so you write a paper which you then submit to academic journals for publication. Those papers are provided free of charge, since academics are mostly interested in establishing their reputations and contributing to their field, not earning money from their research.

A journal editor, usual another academic who is also unpaid, sends some of these submitted papers to external referees for checking. These referees are other academics, who have been doing academic stuff for a while and have made a name for themselves. They’re also generally unpaid, but are willing to perform the often demanding work of “peer review” as part of their duties as academics. The academic publisher then performs some editorial functions, of varying thoroughness, and publishes the papers in one of its journals.

Subscriptions to academic journals are sold to the educational establishments where the academics who wrote the papers, those who edited them, as well as those who reviewed the work are all employed. Often, the subscriptions run to thousands of dollars per year.

An alternative model, known as open access, sees articles published for free, but publication requires a payment by the researcher’s institution or funding organization. These “article processing charges” also typically run to thousands of dollars. No wonder, then, that many academic publishers have achieved profit margins of 30-40% for decades – levels that are rare in any other industry.

Academic Publishers Become Data Brokers

But it seems that even this is not enough. The top academic publishers have used those profits to buy a range of complementary companies that allow them to track every stage of academic work, from formulating research questions through to obtaining posts based on previous academic publications.

One of the leading experts on this trend is Jeff Pooley, professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College. He has written a couple of articles, one short, and one longr, about what he terms “surveillance publishing.” The term is inspired by surveillance capitalism, which we’ve previously discussed on the PIA blog along with its sibling surveillance advertising.

Pooley gives the example of Elsevier, arguably the most successful academic publisher – Pooley says that in 2021 it made $1.4 billion in profit on $3.6 billion in revenue – and the trailblazer in terms of moving to fully-fledged surveillance publishing. He explains how for each stage of the research process, from gathering and storing results, to publishing them as preprints, checking an article’s “impact factor”, or monitoring press coverage, Elsevier has a service, making it a “full-stack” publisher:

Tracking lab results? Elsevier has Hivebench, acquired in 2016. Citation and data-sharing software? Mendeley, purchased in 2013. Posting your working paper or preprint? SSRN and bepress, 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Elsevier’s “solutions” for the post-publication phase of the scholarly workflow are anchored by Scopus and its 81 million records. Curious about impact? Plum Analytics, an altmetrics company, acquired in 2017. Want to track your university’s researchers and their work? There’s the Pure “research information management system,” acquired in 2012. Measure researcher performance? SciVal, spun off from Scopus in 2009, which incorporates the media monitoring service Newsflo, acquired in 2015.

Many of those Elsevier services will now be gathering personal data about academics as they use them, including:

  • when academics work in the lab,
  • how often academics access articles online (and which),
  • what impact each person’s research has on other academics, and
  • how often researchers’ names appears in the news.

As Pooley notes, that information is not only gathered, but analyzed, re-packaged and then sold back to the academic institutions whose employees generated it:

The customers for many of the predictive analytics sold by Elsevier and others are university administrators and national research offices. The products’ purpose is to streamline the top-down assessment and evaluation practices that have taken hold in recent decades, especially across the Anglophone academy.

Surveillance Publishing Will Use Researchers’ Data Against Them

As academics deploy these undoubtedly useful tools from Elsevier in their daily research, sending a constant stream of personal information to surveillance publishers, that data will later be sold to the administrators of educational establishments to help inform their judgements about their industry.

If you’re a researcher, all of your metrics will be used to compare a your research, its cost, results and impact, with that of other academics, both inside and outside a university or research institution. And those metrics will doubtless be used to make decisions about who gets more money, who gets promoted, and who gets fired. Think of it as a credit score, but for your job.

This trend is not some minor aspect of academic publishing. As Pooley explains, all the leading publishers are busily acquiring complementary services to bolster their own full-stack approach and turn themselves into surveillance publishers. The potential is evidently so great that companies beyond the mainstream publishing world are also looking to profit from analyzing and re-selling researchers’ personal data that they gather.

Surveillance publishing may be little known as of yet, but it provides a warning for the wider world of work. As PIA posts have described, surveillance in the workplace is currently relatively limited and fragmentary. Academic publishing offers a worrying example of what could happen if workplace surveillance moved to “full stack” integrated monitoring of every aspect of people’s working lives, and perhaps beyond.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.