Merger is ‘bad news for universities’, say librarians

Journal prices could rise further if Springer-Macmillan deal goes ahead, some fear

January 22, 2015

Librarians have warned that the merger between Macmillan Science and Education and Springer, announced last week, could result in even higher journal prices.

According to Springer’s website, its nearly 3,000 journals published more than 325,000 articles in 2014. Macmillan has only about 160 journals, which, according to its press office, published some 15,000 papers. But these include the prestigious Nature series of journals. Macmillan also includes the Palgrave Macmillan publishing house.

According to Stefanie Haustein, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal, Springer and Macmillan combined published 13 per cent of all papers indexed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science between 2009 and 2013, compared with 23 per cent by Elsevier, the market leader.

Phil Sykes, university librarian at the University of Liverpool, said: “History suggests that mergers like this are bad news for universities, because they further increase the power of publishers in a market that already conspicuously lacks a competitive dynamic.”

David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, pointed out that of the 15 largest publishers identified in a 2002 Office of Fair Trading report, mergers and acquisitions meant that only nine remain.

“Mergers always seem to result in prices being harmonised upwards,” he said. “Nature Publishing Group has been very aggressive in the last few years with price rises, and the real worry is that the new entity will be as aggressive across the whole range of its titles.”

He also warned that mergers mean that “big deals” – multi-year contracts for publishers’ entire electronic catalogues – get bigger, reducing libraries’ budget flexibility and potentially squeezing smaller publishers out when cuts have to be made.

Last week, Tilburg University in the Netherlands announced the cancellation of its subscriptions to the prestigious journals Science and Nature, citing budgetary pressure and an inability to cancel big deals.

The OFT report concluded that while there was “evidence” that the science journal market was not “working well”, it hoped that “market forces” might “remedy the problems”, particularly given the move to digital publishing.

But Mr Sykes said that the Springer-Macmillan merger was further evidence that this was a “wildly optimistic prognosis”. Dr Prosser said that he would ask both UK and continental competition authorities to scrutinise the merger, and hoped they would undertake a wider investigation of the entire journal market.

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