Universities’ journal costs still outstripping inflation

Despite attempts to renegotiate contracts, European institutions face an annual price hike of 3.6 per cent

May 17, 2019
Women looking at empty wallet
Source: iStock

Payments by European universities to big publishers are still increasing faster than inflation despite attempts to strike better deals, according to the latest figures.

Deals with the biggest five publishers – the American Chemical Society (ACS), Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis – are rising in cost by 3.6 per cent a year, finds a report by the European University Association.

With university budgets not increasing at the same rate, this meant that an ever greater proportion of expenditure would go to the major publishers, warned Lidia Borrell-Damián, one of the authors of the 2019 Big Deals Survey Report, and director of research and innovation at the EUA.

The report estimates that collectively the 31 European university consortia surveyed would spend about €1.4 billion (£1.2 billion) on big deals with these five publishers over the next three years. Annual price increases are normally included in deals with publishers, explained Dr Borrell-Damián. Most commonly, these deals last three years, according to the report.

Of the five big publishers surveyed, the ACS is enjoying the biggest annual price rises, at 4.7 per cent.

The price increases are in spite of attempts in countries including Germany, Norway, France and Hungary to renegotiate their contracts with publishers to cut costs and spur open access. “Most consortia also report a clear intention to improve cost control or to eventually reduce costs,” the report says. It concludes that “universities are yet to exercise market power commensurate with their financial contributions” in big deal negotiations, possibly because the details of many deals remain confidential, meaning university consortia are unable to share information.

The “process and expenses” of such deals “must be thoroughly reviewed”, said Dr Borrell-Damián.

The report also reveals that the costs of many universities’ deals with publishers are based on “historic” prices – that is, the price has been rolled over from a previous contract, plus an annual increase. In some cases this meant it was based on journal subscription deals dating back to the 1990s, said Dr Borrell-Damián.

“The prices for access must change. It can’t be based on [historic] subscriptions to entire journals,” she said.

More than half of existing deals with the big publishers have no provisions in them regarding open access, the report also found. But universities hope to change this: every consortium said that it would seek open access stipulations in future deals.

Most of the contracts the survey looked at were set to end last year, or will end in 2019, the report said. “We are in the middle of a change,” said Dr Borrell-Damián – although it was unclear exactly whether it would lead to a “transition” to the cheaper, open access publishing universities hope for, she said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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