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The cost of academic publishing

- April 24, 2014 in Comment, cost, Open Access, publishing, Russell Group, uk

UPDATE 28 April 2014: Imperial have released their subscription data - £1,340,213. This takes the Russell Group to a total of £15.7 million in subscription fees to Elsevier alone with data related to four universities still outstanding.   What could the UK academic community do with £14.5 million? That is the same as the yearly tuition fees for over 1600 undergraduates paying £9,000 fees. And that is what just 19 Universities in the UK are spending in total during a single year on journal subscriptions to a single publisher.   The act of publishing research has an intrinsic cost, and I don’t know anyone who claims otherwise. However, the key questions we as an academic community should be asking is how much this publishing process costs, and if we are receiving value for money. But we can’t answer these questions. Because we don’t know how much academic publishing costs. Historically, the costs of scientific research publication have been covered through subscriptions to academic journals in which the research has been published. Alternative business models are beginning to develop, but the majority of research around the world is still published in journals to which subscriptions are required. Individual academics are largely protected from the costs of access to these journals. Libraries at universities are largely responsible for managing institution wide access to journals, and through JISC negotiate these subscription costs. And then libraries are not allowed to tell anyone what these costs are. Libraries are placed under huge amounts of pressure not to release this data, and in the case of Elsevier, they are explicitly forbidden to by non-disclosure agreements in the contracts they have to sign. Today, Tim Gowers has released data showing that 19 Russell Group Universities alone spend over £14.4 million (excluding VAT) on subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier alone. Without a doubt you should read his blog post which has far more detail and background; but the headline figures are:  

University

Cost

Birmingham

£764,553

Bristol

£808,840

Cambridge

£1,161,571

Cardiff

£720,533

*Durham

£461,020

**Edinburgh

£845,000

*Exeter

£234,126

Glasgow

£686,104

King’s College London

£655,054

Leeds

£847,429

London School of Economics

Not released data

Liverpool

£659,796

Manchester

£1,257,407

Nottingham

Not released data

Newcastle

£974,930

Oxford

Not released data

Queen Mary University of London

Not released data

Queen’s Universty Belfast

£584,020

Sheffield

£562,277

Southampton

£766,616

UCL

£1,381,380

Warwick

£631,851

*York

£400,445

*Joined the Russell Group two years ago. **Information obtained by Sean Williams. Data taken from Tim Gowers blog post found here   This data, acquired through Freedom of Information requests, has focussed upon the Russell Group, but excludes data from Imperial College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, Nottingham, Oxford, and Queen Mary University of London who declined to release their data. And many of these of these are unlikely to be be small spenders. This means that the total figure for the Russell Group will be significantly higher than the £14.4 million stated above. Non-disclosure clauses, included by Elsevier within the contracts have previously prevented libraries from releasing this data, and even from discussing the figures with other libraries or academics within their own University, and the release of this data is likely to cause much comment among libraries and academics. There are large differences between different institutions – for instance Exeter is paying roughly a sixth of the costs being paid by University College London, with UCL spending £1,381,380 (that’s the yearly fees from 150 undergraduates). As Tim mentions in his in-depth analysis, it’s interesting to note that the institutions paying the lowest fees are those institutions who have only recently joined the Russell Group. While a bound physical copy was the only means of communicating written research over a distance, and was a huge development in 1665 with the publication of the first scientific journal, the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’, the idea of journal subscriptions in return for access to academic research is understandable. There were large infrastructure costs involved. However, the Internet has created opportunity for significantly reduced distribution costs. Distributing ‘copies’ of digital work costs very little once initial costs have been covered, and given that this is the way many academics access research within the University, there is no justifiable reason why publishers should charge such widely different access fees to universities. Journal subscriptions are not the only cost to Universities for publishing research. As a transition towards open access is made, author processing charges (APCs) are common; especially in the UK where the Research Councils, Wellcome Trust and other funders have mandated that academics make their research freely and openly available at point of publication. However, this APC data is also not available, which means we can’t see how much money is flowing to publishers. And is is especially important in the case of many high profile and prestigious journals which are what are termed ‘hybrid journals’. These are journals in which some articles are freely available to read after receipt of an APC, but a subscription is still required to read the remainder. No data is currently made available that shows how much UK academics are paying to publish in an open access fashion, either in pure open access journals, or these ‘hybrid journals’. However, data released last month shows that in 2012-2013 alone, the Wellcome Trust alone spent over £1 million on articles published in Elsevier journals – of which nearly 95% was in journals to which an academic library had to also pay a subscription. And yet this is only a small piece of the picture; we still don’t know how much is being spent on APCs by other public funded research streams such as from the Research Councils or HEFCE. In a time of decreasing research funding from Government (given UK inflation rates the flat-line research budget results in a real terms cut), and increased onus on students as a source of income, what is an acceptable cost for publication of research? Be that cost met through journal subscriptions or an open access business model. And to whom should we be paying that money? These conversations are rarely had; partly through lack of information, and partly through the disinterest of many academics. And traditional publishers such as Elsevier benefit significantly and exploit the disinterest of many academics in this space. They take work largely funded by the taxpayer, carried out within publicly funded institutions, and then sell it back to this institution, and every other willing/able institution around the world. And then actively work to prevent libraries from releasing information that may begin to establish a competitive market in this space. To an advantage of many millions of pounds a year. Elsevier alone is charging £14.4 million to 19 universities in the UK – and will be gaining literally millions more from the other 100 universities in the country. They are also gaining millions of pounds in APCs. And that’s just one publisher. There are countless other traditional publishers to whom academic libraries pay subscriptions; Wiley, Oxford University Press, Nature Publishing Group, and Springer just to name a few. And none of this data is out there. No-one knows how much money is being drained from the academic university budgets (either from research grants, or indirect money received through HEFCE grants or student tuition fees) to the financial benefit of these for-profit publishers. We need to get a full picture of the costs of academic publishing – both the costs incurred through journal subscriptions and through APCs. While the focus of Tim’s work has been Elsevier, I’ve submitted Freedom of Information requests to Russell Group Universities asking for journal subscription data for Wiley, Oxford University Press and Springer, and I’ll be making this data available if/when it is released. I will also provide information where libraries do not honour their obligations under FOI, do not accept that this information is in the public interest, and what reasons are they give. And it is without doubt in the public interest to have data that can show the cost of publication made openly available. Without this, there can be no development of competitive markets in either subscriptions or APCs. A chilling effect, created by commercial publishers and non-disclosure clauses, requiring a lack of transparency cannot serve anything other than other than the business interests of traditional publishers.

Looking again at “Big Deal” scholarly journal packages

- February 18, 2013 in big deals, Contribution Economy, Economic Publishing, Featured, Open Access, Open Economics, publishing

This blog post is cross-posted from the Contribution Economy Blog. One of the things pointed to in the debate over market power and scholarly journals is the rise of “Big Deal” packages. Basically, this has arisen as publishers bundle journals together for a single price. Indeed, as the publishers have merged and acquired more titles, these bundled packages have become more compelling with individual journal subscription pricing to libraries rising at a higher rate. This means that libraries with limited budgets are driven to give a greater share of their journal budgets to larger publishers; squeezing out smaller ones. The claim is that this is reducing choice. While it is reducing choice amongst publishers, Andrew Odlyzko, in a recent paper, points out that “Big Deals” have also increased the number of journal titles available; not just in large libraries but across the board. Serials The reason is basically the same reason that is behind the drive towards open access — in electronic form, the marginal cost of an additional journal is zero and so it make sense to provide more journal titles to each library. Moreover, for smaller libraries, the average cost of a journal title has fallen at a faster rate than it has done for larger libraries. In other words, behind the spectre of increased publisher profits and market power, is an increase in journal availability. Put simply, more researchers have easier access to journals than before. This is one case where — if we just consider University libraries — price discrimination (using Varian’s rule) looks to be in the welfare improving range. But there are, of course, wrinkles to all of this. This says nothing of access beyond Universities which is still an issue both economically and increasingly morally. It also says nothing of the distribution of rents in the industry. Publisher profits have increased dramatically and that money has to come from somewhere. Odlyzko raises a new issue in that regard: publisher profits are a symptom that libraries are being squeezed. Of course, we know that the share of library budgets devoted to journal acquisition has risen. At the same time, library budgets have fallen although not as quickly as Odlyzko expected a decade ago. The reason is that libraries command attention at Universities. Changes to them are a signal of how quickly changes can occur within Universities. As it turns out, there is not very much. Libraries are centrally located, have nostalgic views in the eyes of alumni donors and hitting their budgets can often be read as a sign of a move against scholarship. But what publishers are providing now, in terms of electronic access and search, is as much a transfer of functions as it is of money from libraries to themselves. Put simply, publishers are now doing what librarians used to do. They have provided tools that make it easier for people to find information. It is another way machines are being substituted for labor. The competition between libraries and publishers has implications with regard to how we view alternative journal business models. Take, for instance, the notion that we can have journals funded by author fees and be given open access instead of being funded by user fees. If we did this, then this will just change the locus of the competitive fight between libraries and publishers to involve academics. Academics can legitimately argue that these new publication fees should come from the institution and, where will the institution find the money? In the now relieved library budgets as more journals go open access. So either way, the money for journal publishing will end up coming from libraries. This is not to say that there is no scope for reducing the costs of journal access and storage. It is surely bloated now as it includes the publisher market power premium. The point is that libraries spent time resisting changes to journal business models as much as publishers did but that seems to have been a political error on their part. This is all familiar stuff to economists. The flow of money is less important than the structure of activities. When it comes down to it, we know one thing: we can provide a journal system with labor from academics (as writers, referees and editors) and publisher activities when there is enough willingness to pay for all of it. That means we can provide the same overall payment and still, because journals are a non-rival good, have open access. In other words, there is no market impediment to open access, it is proven to be a pure Pareto improvement. The question now is how to do the “Really Big Deal” to get it there.

A web community of academics with the aim of killing the current journal publishing model

- July 11, 2012 in discussion, forum, journals, publishing

Several publishers and academic institutions have tried to make community-based tools that crowd-source academics (or hand-pick them, which is worse...) to recommend good journal articles or encourage discussion of articles as they're published. By and large they've failed, but the tools are out there and it may very well not be long before the ultimate journal-killing web resource comes along which allows publication of results and the discussion and distillation of them into something much easier to digest than your average paper. The main thing that's missing is a system which actually encourages discussion so that there is a lively debate going on around each publication or result. I don't think anyone's been able to make this happen yet. I have some ideas for how to do this which I think are blindingly obviously the way to do it, but so far no one in the publishing world seems to have thought of them, so maybe they're wildly impractical.
It would be great if the OKF could get hold of some government funding and have a go at making this thing though, as I think you're a) the right organisation to be trusted to do it right; and b) in a very good position to be in with a chance of making it work - you've got the skills and I expect you've also got the contacts, or if you don't have the contacts I expect it'd be easy to get them.

A web community of academics with the aim of killing the current journal publishing model

- July 11, 2012 in discussion, forum, journals, publishing

Several publishers and academic institutions have tried to make community-based tools that crowd-source academics (or hand-pick them, which is worse...) to recommend good journal articles or encourage discussion of articles as they're published. By and large they've failed, but the tools are out there and it may very well not be long before the ultimate journal-killing web resource comes along which allows publication of results and the discussion and distillation of them into something much easier to digest than your average paper. The main thing that's missing is a system which actually encourages discussion so that there is a lively debate going on around each publication or result. I don't think anyone's been able to make this happen yet. I have some ideas for how to do this which I think are blindingly obviously the way to do it, but so far no one in the publishing world seems to have thought of them, so maybe they're wildly impractical.
It would be great if the OKF could get hold of some government funding and have a go at making this thing though, as I think you're a) the right organisation to be trusted to do it right; and b) in a very good position to be in with a chance of making it work - you've got the skills and I expect you've also got the contacts, or if you don't have the contacts I expect it'd be easy to get them.