Category Archives: Publishing

The cost of subscription publishing

The following article was submitted by Stuart Lawson.

The high cost of subscription journals has been discussed endlessly among librarians and those advocating for open access. While it is common knowledge that the prices paid by libraries are higher than most can really afford, there is still surprisingly little data in the public domain about what the exact costs are. Partly this is just down to the fact that libraries haven’t traditionally published detailed breakdowns of their acquisitions expenditure, so there is no cultural norm of doing so.

Partly it is due to the contracts that libraries sign with publishers to gain access to their journals. Some of these contracts contain non-disclosure agreements which prevent librarians from publicly disclosing the prices or pricing calculations. However, while this practice does exist, it is less widespread than is sometimes assumed. In the UK the only publisher whose contract includes a non-disclosure agreement which it claims prevents signatories from releasing some data even when subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests is Elsevier. The legal position of Elsevier’s non-disclosure clause has not been tested in court and if there are any brave librarians out there who wish to pursue that route, it could be worth getting a legal opinion about whether it can be done.

Subscription costs for all other publishers can be gained by any member of the public by sending FOI requests to UK universities, either as an individual or through the website whatdotheyknow.com. So that’s what we’ve done. The subscription costs paid by around 100 institutions to six major publishers are now openly available on figshare. We will be sending carefully-worded FOI requests separately for Elsevier data to obtain as much as is legally possible at the moment.

Transparency in subscription data is particularly important right now because we are seeing increased transparency in the price of APCs, and if this is seen without the context of the costs of subscriptions it could be used to claim that open access is needlessly expensive (thanks to Ernesto Priego for pointing this out).

Huge thanks to Ben Meghreblian for doing most of the manual labour or sending out all the FOI requests and collating the responses. Not every UK higher education institution is included in this dataset, particularly some of those institutions which have merged in the last few years, but the majority are. The notable exception is the majority of the research-intensive Russell Group universities, which were excluded because I know that someone else sent similar requests earlier this year but have not published the results yet. Even though those Russell Group universities would tend to have much higher subscription expenditure, I think it is important to see how bearing the burden of the costs of academic publishing is not limited to the more wealthy institutions.

A few caveats about the data so far:

  • The requests asked for data in calendar years, and some institutions responded with data in academic financial years. In those cases the data has been put in the column for the latter year. For example, if a figure is given for 2012/13, it is placed in the 2013 column. The money may actually have been transferred during 2012, but it will be for subscriptions for 2013.
  • Some institutions have not included expenditure through subscription agents or other intermediaries, including big deals. Others have included these costs. This makes directly comparing institutions’ expenditure more tricky.
    We are still waiting for responses from some institutions. These figures will be added to the spreadsheet as they become available.

For further details of individual requests please follow the links given in the tabs in the spreadsheet.

UPDATE: Further data has been added to the dataset, which now includes expenditure on  Elsevier journals for some universities.