Report lifts lid on cost of subscription deals with publishers

A switch to open access could save hundreds of millions of euros, says analysis from the European University Association

April 11, 2018
safe money

European universities and research organisations could save hundreds of millions of euros a year by switching to an open access publishing system, a new analysis of subscription deals with publishers has concluded.

The report by the European University Association (EUA) warns of growing publisher profit margins as research budgets are squeezed – and comes as university consortia in France and Germany have stopped paying some of the world’s biggest academic publishers for journal access after contract negotiations broke down.

EUA Big Deals Survey Report: The First Mapping of Major Scientific Publishing Contracts in Europe surveyed university negotiators from 28 European countries in 2016 and 2017 to find out the cost and terms of their largest contracts with publishers.

Although the responses are anonymised by country and publisher, the results shed light on deal terms that are often kept under wraps.

Overall, research institutions spent €421 million (£367 million) a year on subscription deals to journals, e-books and databases. The vast majority of this (€384 million) was spent on journals, based on cost data for 66 contracts. Sixty-five per cent of this expenditure went to Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, while 22.4 per cent went to Wiley.

But it adds that actual costs “are surely much higher than those reported in this study, as respondents were only asked to provide data for their three most expensive contracts and not all respondents were able to share data”.

Previous analysis has suggested that a switch to an open access system – where researchers pay to publish, rather than readers subscribing to access journals – could cut costs by up to 45 per cent.

“This would imply potential savings of around €170 million on journals in Europe, which could be re-allocated to research and/or to moving towards a full-scale open access publishing system,” the EUA study concludes.

The report also found evidence of sizable annual price increases written in to many of the contracts. For nearly a fifth of contracts, prices are rising between 3-4 per cent a year, while almost 16 per cent of contracts stipulate annual price increases of 4-6 per cent.

Concerns have been raised in several countries, including the UK and France, that journal subscription costs continue to rise despite a switch towards open access.

One solution is to offset article processing charges (APCs), paid to make a paper open access, against the subscription fees universities pay for closed journals, meaning that researchers do not pay twice over – once to publish, and once to read - for journals.

But the report shows this is slow to happen, because the vast majority of journal contracts – 84 per cent – do not include APCs or offsetting provisions. But two-thirds of respondents said they were considering including them in future deals.

The report also warns that only a quarter of contracts included text and data mining (TDM) provisions, the ability to use software tools to comb articles and databases for further research insights. “In the minority of cases where TDM provisions were included, publishers actually provided dedicated platforms and analysis tools,” it says. Some advocates for greater TDM rights have raised concerns that stipulating which software tools must be used limits researchers.

A spokesman for STM, which represents academic and professional publishers, said most publishers "now offer open-access options and publish open-access journals, and work closely with funders, institutions and governments to facilitate these developments".

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