Big variation across Europe in cost of publishing with ‘big five’

Analysis of publishing deals across Europe highlights different costs faced by country-level consortia

October 29, 2019
Famous Five
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New analysis has revealed “staggering differences” in the effective prices per article paid by university consortia across Europe to the big five scientific publishers.

The analysis by the European University Association compared country-level subscription costs against publication volumes under “big deals” signed with Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, Wiley and the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Overall, subscriptions paid to all publishers in the 26 surveyed European countries in 2017 totalled €597 million (£517 million), of which €451 million was spent with the big five, according to Decrypting the Big Deal Landscape.

In turn, the big five accounted for 56 per cent of some 391,000 publications with corresponding authors in the 26 countries – about 220,000 – of which Elsevier was, by far, the largest publisher: it published 97,580 articles (25 per cent of all articles), ahead of Springer Nature, which produced 55,332 (14.2 per cent), and Wiley’s 36,875 (9.4 per cent).

When expenditure was compared against total publication output within these countries to gain a price per article, the big five appeared to charge significantly more than other publishers on average, the report says: €2,050 an article compared to the €1,526 overall average, with Wiley and Elsevier posting the highest median per-article charges at €2,658 and €2,642 respectively.

With many publishers now flipping big deals from subscriptions to open access agreements, in which institutions and consortia instead pay the cost of publishing, these costs provide an indicator of the fees that the dominant players would expect to maintain their current revenues, the report says.

While Elsevier accounted for a quarter of publications, it accounted for 42.4 per cent of subscription spending, it adds.

However, the average amount paid by certain countries was significantly higher than others when their expenditure was compared against the volume of articles made available that year, from €600 to €2,883 an article across all publishers, says the report, which did not analyse costs associated with article-processing charges and other tools and resources provided by publishers.

The report also adds that the price per article “varies highly across the same publisher” between countries.

“The lower value for Elsevier, for example, is just below €1,400, while several contracts are in the range of €4,000 to €5,000,” the report explains, adding that, in two “outlier” cases, the cost per article was €9,000 at the ACS and about €13,000 at Elsevier.

The “staggering differences in the prices per article under different agreements” raises questions of “whether publishers set prices according to a common principle across Europe”, the report says. It highlights the suggestion made by Carlos Moedas, the outgoing European commissioner for research and innovation, that the EU should negotiate directly with publishers to gain lower prices.

Jon Tennant, a research fellow in palaeontology and open scholarly communication at the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, Paris, and at Southern Denmark University, said the figures demonstrated how academic publishing “remains controlled by anti-competitive practices”.

He argued that “an efficient per article production cost should be around €400”.

“The fact that we continue to use taxpayer money to essentially fund inefficiency in this system should be considered an outrage,” Dr Tennant said, adding that it was “baffling” that some articles are said to cost about €13,000 to publish.

“Any publisher charging this is just committing an act of daylight robbery,” he said.

An Elsevier spokesman said that the EUA report “assumes all content is the same by not analysing quality or volume”. Since 30 per cent of Elsevier journals ranked in the top 10 per cent by quality, and 95 per cent are in the top half, “in that sense the report’s findings aren’t surprising”, he said.

“We recognise we represent a higher share of wallet for most of our customers, but that’s simply a reflection of the volume and quality of the content they choose to purchase from us,” the spokesman said.


Print headline: Big deals, big fees

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