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The five largest research publishers (a group that changes a bit by discipline) started publishing half of academic papers in 2006, up from 30 percent in 1996 and 20 percent in 1973, according to new research published Wednesday in PLOS ONE by researchers at the University of Montreal. The piece argues that this concentration has reached oligopoly status and poses dangers to academic publishing. “Overall, the major publishers control more than half of the market of scientific papers both in the natural and medical sciences and in the social sciences and humanities,” said Vincent Larivière, a professor in Montreal's School of Library and Information Science, who led the study. “Furthermore, these large commercial publishers have huge sales, with profit margins of nearly 40 percent. While it is true that publishers have historically played a vital role in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the print era, it is questionable whether they are still necessary in today's digital era.”

John Tagler, vice president and executive director for professional and scholarly publishing at the Association of American Publishers, had this response, via email: “The forces of consolidation are not unique to the scholarly publishing industry,” he said. “In an era of globalization and large-scale technological implementations, there are benefits to spreading infrastructure investment and maintenance across a broad spectrum of products. In digital publishing this has resulted in a diverse market of providers and faster and more robust delivery of information to readers.”