Elsevier’s profits swell to more than £900 million

But ‘risks’ of open access and a shift away from subscription model could halt growth, publisher’s financial results reveal

February 20, 2018
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The world’s largest academic publisher grew its profits to more than £900 million last year, although it warned that a move towards openly available research could hurt its business.

Elsevier, currently locked in a dispute with German research institutions that want it to move away from a paywalled subscription model towards pay-to-publish open access, had its financial results released last week as part of those of its parent company, RELX.

They show that the Amsterdam-based publisher made a profit of £913 million, up £60 million from 2016. The company’s profit margin in 2017 was 36.8 per cent, unchanged from the year before. RELX as a whole – of which Elsevier accounts for a third of revenue – paid out £762 million in dividends to shareholders.

The publisher has long been criticised by some campaigners for its profit margin, and there have been numerous attempts by academics to it shift towards an open-access rather than a subscription-based publishing model.

In a section disclosing the “principal risks” to Elsevier’s business, RELX notes in the results that its journals are “sold largely on a paid subscription basis”.

“There is continued debate in government, academic and library communities, which are the principal customers for our STM [scientific, technical and medical, the name for Elsevier within RELX] content, regarding to what extent such content should be funded instead through fees charged to authors or authors’ funders and/or made freely available in some form after a period following publication,” it says.

“Some of these methods, if widely adopted, could adversely affect our revenue from paid subscriptions,” the results add.

The beginning of the year brought no resolution to the stand-off between Germany and Elsevier, which has dragged on since 2016. German research institutions are now thought to be saving about €10 million (£8.8 million) a year after failing to agree a new deal with the publisher, which has nonetheless decided to maintain access to its content.

There is no direct mention of the Germany dispute in Elsevier’s latest results, although since the beginning of the year, RELX’s share price has tumbled by about 15 per cent. It is unclear to what extent this is due to the stand-off, but some analysts have warned that it raises questions over the publisher’s future growth.


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