Scientific journals are (still) getting (more) expensive (than ever) 

Overcoming the ghost of Robert Maxwell

After a wave of national unsubscriptions from Springer and Elsevier in France, Germany and now Sweden, the UK has with current negotiations a silver platter opportunity to make a similar move away from the scholarly publishing behemoths' skyrocketing rates.

JISC, the non-profit negotiating sector-wide deals in higher education on behalf of the universities' libraries, is currently negotiating the institutions' subscriptions deal with Wiley.

It is believed they may not be oblivious to what has been happening elsewhere as of recently.

What’s more, Springer cancelled a bid to attract new investment only a few weeks after launching it, as academic publishing used to be a very stable business.

Meanwhile, new data shows UK universities' expenditures on subscriptions are still going up way, way beyond mere inflation.

And now, all those skyrocketing costs for taxpayers, universities and students are LESS AND LESS USEFUL.

Despite the awareness around the issue, universities are still spending increasingly more for their access to scholarly journals. Following many arduous, time-consuming Freedom of Information requests to most universities in Britain, it turns out that not much has changed since the Finch report of 2012.

At the time, Paul Harwood did think this government report would be a decisive turn towards Open Access publishing in the UK. Yet, his perception was short-lived, as we are now in 2018 and many institutional libraries are still increasing their expenditures for their access to documents that are not officially available elsewhere.

Harwood has been in the business of academic publishing for three decades now, either on the librarian side or as an intermediary agent between libraries and publishers. It is fair to say that the now associate director at Oxford Brookes University knows a great deal about the sector.

“I’m quite attentive at what is happening right now in the UK”, says Paul, whose team has also been managing my greedy, rookie FOI request. “I am not part of that and I don’t know how it will go, but I imagine if you’re JISC and you are negotiating with one of those big publishers, you’re mindful of what has happened in France, Germany and Sweden.”

“Maybe they’ll think that they might not get a deal, and maybe that may not be a disaster after all.”

“I think this is an interesting phase now. Still, I have been around in the field long enough to know that it may well go the other way.

“This notion now that a few countries come up publicly and say that they’re just going to walk away from their new deals with big publishers, that is new I think, and significant. it looks like a bit of a domino effect. Those countries are quite public about it.”

He also notes the recent bid by Springer to bring in investing money up to €3,2 billion the company aborted just as the trading was to open at the Frankfurt stock exchange. Something that revealed some “cracks” in the business models, opines Harwood and also Vincent Lariviere, a researcher at University of Montreal who in 2015 co-authored a paper titled The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. Both did actually employ the same term separately.

Investors are a bit less adventurous now for what used to be seen as sure bets, since libraries and universities would always need scholarly journals.”

But Stuart Lawson, a researcher specialising in open access at Birkbeck, is much less optimistic:

“The wave of subscription cancellations - of Springer in France, and Elsevier in Germany, Sweden, etc. - is probably dwarfed by the number of institutions around the world who have newly signed up to buy packages from these publishers. I don't have the figures to prove it, but there is no strong indication that the big publishers are hurting financially at all.”

Elsevier's most recent annual report stated profits rising, same as always. Given the ongoing support for APCs from the UK, Germany, EU etc. on top of subscription payments - I think the publishers are doing just fine, from their perspective.”

In a softer fashion, an Elsevier spokesperson highlighted the company's recent renewal of a ScienceDirect deal with the UK licensing service provider Jisc Collections in 2016.

"Elsevier is one of many service providers to the research and science community, offering a range of content sets, services, analytics and decision tools. We work directly with our customers to understand their objectives and help them reach their goals in a way that is satisfactory to them from a content, service and economic perspective."

"As one of the largest open access publishers, Elsevier supports the ambitions of countries, funders, and the scientific community to transition to open access. In primary research publishing we offer journal and article quality above the average of other major providers, with an average price per subscription article below that of other major providers."

-An Elsevier spokesperson

Indeed, many universities in the UK are still spending more for journals yearly, with Elsevier and many others.

The chart just below shows yearly expenditures evolution from 2013-2014 to 2016-2017, based on data provided by the universities themselves individually under the Freedom of Information Act. Shown institutions are those which provided the information in time and that present no outliers to the top.

Proportional changes between years were chosen for this chart because the data between institutions is not necessarily comparable. While all this data include scholarly journals, they will something include online and print, or just one format. Full-text requests databases are included as well in many cases. But in all cases what's included does not differ between years for a given university for all years - this is why comparing percentage changes makes more sense.

Stuart Lawson has been getting similar data from universities through FOI requests, looking at invoices paid to the 10 biggest publishers.

Universities can spend from a few hundred thousand to a few million pounds per year - and on average here, it increased by 24% in 3 years - which isn’t exactly mere inflation.

For instance, the University of Edinburgh spent £3,271,942 in 2012-2013 and £4,002,378 in 2016-2017. 

For the University of Leeds, it went from £2,550,905 to £3,916,916 during the same period. 

The University of Exeter's expenditures went from £1,328,000 in 2011-2012 to £2,327,404 in 2016-2017, while Cardiff University's went from £3,482,334 to £4,654,046 (2012-2013 and 2016-2017).

While those figures may mean that some institutions have been increasing their number of subscriptions, that the subscriptions stayed the same but the costs increased anyway, or else, that they have been unsubscribing to many titles while still observing an increase, we'll see below that none of those contexts should make any sense - including upgrading a current set of titles.

You can see the compiled data for all universities (so far) in this spreadsheet! More coming up later (note that monetary figures between universities are not directly comparable, see the methodology tab).

So why is that so expensive?

It is Robert Maxwell, the builder of a publishing empire and former owner of the Daily Mirror, and founder of Pergamon Press, who was the first to see the opportunity in this kind of business.

“He really was the first one, in the 60’s or 70’s, to realise that the subscription model for journals was a great thing because prices could be increased every year”, says Harwood.

Because universities would always have to subscribe to journals. “If you could build up a portfolio of uniques, must-have journals, you would have a very profitable business there, and in a way, that’s been the battle that libraries and publishers have had for many years.”

“And then companies have started to look at this business and thought this is an interesting place to go. Like The Lancet, you can’t get it from any other, unlike most other sectors. So then after libraries got stuck because publishers can increase the price as they please.”

In the 90’s came what became known as the “Big Deal”. Subscribed libraries, overnight, for the same price, gained access to a publisher’s full electronic collection instead of its few hundred print subscriptions only. But that was the condition exactly: you have to maintain your present subscriptions.

But the costs of subscriptions increased each year. “In the last 20 years, libraries kept paying, no matter what, as if it was part of the essential expenditures like heating or electricity - many people really saw it this way”, says Lariviere. “Just as if nothing could be done, it just goes up by 20% and ‘yes, we’ll just pay’”.

“This was easy money for commercial publishers, with margins of profits ranging from 30% to 50%.”

In some way, it was a win-win situation for libraries, but then it mostly fast-tracked concentration of market shares. “Prices are increasing then after, but budgets do not, and if one wants to continue to access those big deals, he’ll have to unsubscribe from the smaller publishers,” says Paul.

In Lariviere’s paper in 2015, it was shown that the five biggest publishers owned from 50% to 70% of all research published in psychology, professional fields, social sciences and health. And it goes from 35% to 70% for natural sciences, medicine and engineering.

“But universities are just starting to unsubscribe, creating uncertainty, which is good news to me,” says Vincent.

Ok, but still, universities have access to thousands of publications they would not have otherwise?

Recent evidence suggests many journals aren’t used, especially those that are extra from the “big deal” packages. 

“There is a big asymmetry in usage between journals. Here in Canada we recently got figures on journals usage in 32 universities. The proportion of unused publications is huge. And we’re not talking about limited use. We are talking about no use at all. There are not even people going there by accident.”

Not only this, even when universities are subscribing to some relevant titles, many people will simply use the pirated journal articles platform Sci-Hub, the Pirate Bay of scientific publishing, mostly because it is easier to find something there more quickly, although it may not be constantly reliable.

So, to sum it up scientific research is mostly funded by taxpayers and students.

Then we submit, for free, our research to commercial publishers.

Other scientific will review the papers for free.

The publishers will then use the content in their journals on which they set a paywall.

So the universities, again with their taxpayer and student money, will subscribe to unlock it, so students and researchers can access the research they funded themselves.

But they don’t need a lot of them, and if so they may just head to Sci-Hub directly.

That's great. So has anyone ever thought of another way?

There has been a great increase in the number and quality of OA journals and articles, but the big publishers are still sitting very comfortably on theirs because they are owning a lot of quite prestigious titles.

And Lariviere would agree that prestige is pretty much the only thing keeping OA publications from growing even more.

Journals are a vector of prestige. Being published helps determine whether a researcher will be granted funds, whether he’ll get a permanent position. There are indeed quite high individual motivations to submit papers to journals like The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science, …”

“But OA is not marginal anymore. We estimate one article out of two is now open access. There are many prestigious journals on that side, like E-Life.”

“If someone tells you a journal isn’t any good because it is OA, he is a bit in the 90’s. 1997 maybe.”

There are other models emerging, one of which is quite “abominable”, says Lariviere. It’s the hybrid model. Concretely, an author of a published paper can opt to pay a fee for its article to be fully open access. But that does not mean the subscribers will pay less if a given article part of their deal is in fact free. So it is mostly an extra layer of spending.

Other more obscure publications such as Research Features are downright revolting, argues Lariviere. “I’d stay away from that. Apparently, they are having some success, but they frequently poke libraries and researchers to pay for being ‘published’, but you’re basically offering yourself publicity”.

And projects are developing around blockchain. A company called Orvium promises to democratise and decentralise academic publishing with an open source platform that will allow the tracking every step in a paper’s life. It also aims to adjust prices of access to a given article in a more "market-efficient" way, and by giving back to the science community, the money generated being shared by the platform and the authors.

But there are quite some doubt about that thing.

Stuart Lawson would agree: “I'm choosing to ignore blockchain. I think it's largely a distraction, and it posited as a technical solution to what are social problems.”

So where are we headed then?

Probably a mix of everything, but big publishers aren’t going away anytime, considering their huge capital. 

“I think it will continue to be messy and a mixed economy for some time. I wouldn't be surprised if subscription journals, hybrid journals, and open access journals are all still around in 5 years or even 10 years or beyond, albeit the proportion of articles published in the different types of journals will likely continue to shift towards open access.

“Change happens slowly. Co-operative and consortial funding models for open access are very promising but will take years before they can start to be a serious challenge to the dominance of legacy publishers.”