Spending on subscriptions to journals rises by up to 50%

Freedom of Information requests reveal substantial hikes in university outlay despite open access push

October 30, 2014

Source: Getty

Going up: payments to the main journal publishers by universities have soared

The amount of money paid by UK universities to subscribe to some large publishers’ journals has risen by almost 50 per cent since 2010, new data suggest.

The finding is based on freelance requests under the Freedom of Information Act to more than 100 universities by Ben Meghreblian, an independent researcher, and Stuart Lawson, a research analyst at Jisc Collections. The researchers asked each institution how much it had spent over the past five years on subscribing to journals from seven of the largest publishers.

They found that the amount paid to Oxford University Press rose by 49.2 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The amount paid to Springer rose by 36.3 per cent and the amount to Wiley by 33.5 per cent. The smallest rise – 17.4 per cent – was in subscriptions to Elsevier journals. Overall expenditure increased by 23.9 per cent.

Mr Lawson told Times Higher Education that he had made the FoI requests to instigate a better-informed conversation about the cost of publishing in an era of increasing open access. Many institutions and funders have recently begun publishing the amount that they spend in open-access article fees. However, information on the amount paid in subscription fees has typically been shrouded in confidentiality agreements between libraries and publishers.

“But with increased scrutiny on the business practices and profit margins of academic publishers, the opacity is frustrating and no longer acceptable,” Mr Lawson and Mr Meghreblian write in a posting earlier this month on the London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences blog.

The lid began to be lifted earlier this year by Tim Gowers, Royal Society 2010 anniversary research professor at the University of Cambridge, who unearthed figures on how much Russell Group members pay for subscriptions to Elsevier journals.

In their blog, Mr Lawson and Mr Meghreblian say that their data could be used by libraries to compare their subscription expenditure, and by open access advocates to examine whether publishers’ subscription charges also take into account articles whose authors have already paid an open access fee: a phenomenon dubbed “doubledipping”.

However, Mr Lawson admitted that this would be difficult without additional information since, despite the rise of open access, the number of articles published under the subscription model is still increasing.

Tim Barton, managing director for global academic publishing at OUP, said that two-thirds of the rise in universities’ expenditure with his company was the result not of price rises but of the addition of a significant number of “large, established, and high-impact factor” society-run journals to the OUP’s list, which had grown by 30 per cent since 2010.

“OUP is committed to…fair and sustainable pricing. Our [subscription] fee is directly proportional to the value of the individual titles. OUP has one of the lowest cost-per-citation ratios in the market,” he added.

In a statement Wiley says it is impossible to use the published data to distinguish “a true increase in price from a university’s decision to spend more on a wider collection of journals”.


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Reader's comments (2)

It's interesting to note that Wiley does not attempt to refute a true price increase in the last paragraph. I wonder if these (and other) publishers will be proactive and release pertinent data relating to subscription payments so we can judge the issues for ourselves? Or will we have to wait for the results of another round of Freedom of Information requests?
I was truly astonished when I first unearthed, in 2011, what UCL was paying to Elsevier -see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4873 There are now so many other options for publishing that it is entirely in the hands of the academic community to bring down the prices drastically. The only thing that allows traditional publishers to charge extortionate amounts for open access is the continued obsession of some academics with journal impact factors. There is an ever-increasing number of other options that are far cheaper. Use them, and very quickly the huge sums charged by Elsevier and NPG would fall (or they would go out of business).

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