Pay out then priced out: bid to rein in high journal costs

Report estimates the cost of peer review to UK universities to be £165 million, writes Paul Jump

November 4, 2010

Vice-chancellors and librarians hope a new report estimating the cost to universities of peer review will help to rein in "excessive" rises in the price of journal subscriptions.

Pulling together data from previous studies, the report says UK academics spend up to 3 million hours a year acting as peer reviewers, and it values their time at £165 million.

It calculates the value of editors and editorial boards as up to another £30 million a year. A spokesman for consultants Rightcom, which compiled the report, said peer review could cost a large university up to £14 million annually.

The report was commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee Collections, which negotiates journal subscription prices on behalf of UK research libraries.

Jisc Collections' chief executive, Lorraine Estelle, said The Value of UK HEIs' Contribution to the Publishing Process: Summary Report was intended to demonstrate the academy's financial contribution to the publishing process.

She said increases in subscription prices had far outstripped inflation in recent years, with average rises in 2009 of 7.6 per cent.

When this was raised with publishers they highlighted the "added value" they were bringing, such as extra content and increased website functionality, she said.

Ms Estelle added: "We don't dispute this but it is impossible for us to keep up with such enormous price increases, especially in the current economic climate."

Sir Tim O'Shea, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh and chair of Jisc, said he had sent the report to every vice-chancellor and had encountered a new level of determination to address the problem.

He said publishers and universities had to be realistic about each other's position: "No matter what you are selling, you can't just charge an arbitrary price and expect people who bought it before to buy it again."

Phil Sykes, university librarian at the University of Liverpool and chair of Research Libraries UK, said the report provided "yet more evidence of how unjustified the hyper-inflationary journal price rises of the past three decades have been".

Hazel Woodward, university librarian at Cranfield University, said the biggest price rises had come from large publishers, while some smaller ones had frozen or even reduced their prices recently.

The SPIE, an international society for optics and photonics, cut the price of its journal by 10 per cent this year. Marybeth Manning, director of digital library business development, said this was due to a desire to be "responsible citizens", as well as to be viewed "favourably" when librarians considered cuts.

She said that the SPIE's non-profit status meant it was not "driven by returning double-digit profits to shareholders each year".

Graham Taylor, director of academic publishing at the Publishers Association, said peer review benefited the academic community and if its costs were borne by publishers, subscription prices would have to rise "substantially".

He said that the cost of peer review remained "relatively minor" compared with the overall cost of research and did not represent a potential saving because it was covered by salaries universities would pay anyway.

"The only way for universities to save money is to make people redundant," he added.

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