Top universities’ journal subscriptions ‘average £4 million’

Average spending has increased by 19 per cent in four years, Freedom of Information requests reveal

June 12, 2018
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Subscriptions to academic journals are costing leading UK universities almost £4 million a year on average, new figures reveal.

Data obtained from 18 Russell Group institutions under Freedom of Information requests show that the majority of this outlay is typically spent with the five major academic publishing houses: Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage.

The data, obtained by Iris.ai, a research technology company that offers tools to help academics find open-access versions of content, suggest that institutions’ outlays have been consistently increasing.

The responses put the average bill in 2016-17 at £3.9 million, up from £3.3 million in 2012-13 – an 18.9 per cent increase in four years.

They also indicate widespread variation between institutional spending: last year, UCL paid £6.4 million, while the London School of Economics spent £1.5 million.

The data emerge at a time of peak discontent with the rising costs of journals and the slow progress towards open access among the academic community. About 200 German universities and research institutions have allowed their Elsevier subscriptions to expire, while institutions in France and Sweden have opted to follow suit in disputes with Springer and Elsevier, respectively.

Anita Schjøll Brede, co-founder of Iris.ai, said that it was only a matter of time before UK universities were pushed too far and “jump out”.

“It’s an old-fashioned business model that is increasing [in cost] year by year and is simply not going to be sustainable,” she said. “It seems that university libraries have been at the mercy of just continuing to agree to whatever the big five negotiate…but maybe it’s time to start a little bit of a revolution at this point.”

The 2016-17 data show that UCL also paid the largest amount to the big five publishers, £3.7 million. Of the University of Manchester’s £6.1 million outlay, £3.2 million went to the big five. The average payment to the companies was £2.1 million.

The University of Glasgow held data going as far back as 1980, in which year it paid a total of £180,000 for all its subscriptions. Last year, the university shelled out more than £3.8 million.

The university said that it was especially noticeable how much fees had risen in recent years.

“Publishers seek to increase their profits and push back in journal agreement negotiations,” the institution told Times Higher Education.

Subscription deals with “big players” such as Elsevier, Springer and Wiley are usually negotiated on universities’ behalf by Jisc Collections, Glasgow added, “who take a tough line on the high increases proposed”.

“Universities must continue to push back on proposed journal increases and continue to explore cost-effective and transformative open-access models,” the university said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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