Working Paper 91
An Index, A Publisher and An Unequal Global Research Economy
Published July 2023

This is the story of how a publisher and a citation index turned the science communication system into a highly profitable global industry. Over the course of seventy years, academic journal articles have become commodities, and their meta-data a further source of revenue. It begins in Washington at the end of a second World War, when the US Government agrees a massive increase in funding for research, after Vannevar Bush champions basic research as the ‘pacemaker of technological progress’. The resulting post-war growth in scientific publishing creates opportunities for information scientists and publishers alike. During the 1950s, two men – Robert Maxwell and Eugene Garfield – begin to experiment with their blueprint for the research economy. Maxwell created an ‘international’ publisher – Pergamon Press – charming the editors of elite, not-for-profit society journals into signing commercial contracts. Garfield invented the science citation index to help librarians manage this growing flow of knowledge. Over time, the index gradually became commercially viable as universities and publishers used it to measure the ‘impact’ of their researchers and journals.

Sixty years later, the global science system has become a citation economy, with academic credibility mediated by the currency produced by the two dominant commercial citation indexes: Elsevier’s Scopus and Clarivate’s Web of Science. The reach of these citation indexes and their data analytics is amplified by digitisation, computing power and financial investment. Scholarly reputation is now increasingly measured by journal rankings, ‘impact factors’ and ‘h-indexes’. Non-Anglophone journals are disproportionately excluded from these indexes, reinforcing the stratification of academic credibility geographies and endangering long established knowledge ecosystems. Researchers in the majority world are left marginalised and have no choice but to go ever faster, resorting to research productivism to keep up. The result is an integrity-technology ‘arms race’. Responding to media stories about a crisis of scientific fraud, publishers and indexes turn to AI tools to deal with what is seen as an epidemic of academic ‘gaming’ and manipulation.

Does the unfettered growth in publishing ‘outputs’, moral panics over research integrity and widening global divides signal a science system in crisis? And is the ‘Open Science’ vision under threat, as the ‘author-pays’ publishing business model becomes dominant? With the scientific commons now largely reliant on citations as its currency, the future of science communication is far from certain.