Tag Archives: publishers

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.

Access To Research – A Public Library Initiative

Theo Andrew works as a Scholarly Communications Officer in the Information Services group at the University of Edinburgh. Professional interests include: enhancing scholarly communication using new technologies; promoting an open agenda within academia; research analytics and altmetrics; and research information/data management.


Data set containing over 1.6m temperature readings from stations across the globe.
(Image c/o Jer Thorp on Flickr.)

In January 2014 the Access to Research initiative was launched. This initiative was sparked by and is a response to a key recommendation in the Finch Report – “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications” (Page 7; recommendation v). The two year pilot co-ordinated by the Publishers Licensing Society aims to give free at the point of use, walk-in access to academic literature in public libraries across the UK. The launch quickly generated a fair amount of publicity, albeit with equal measures of scorn poured upon it.

This blog post is not going to spend a long time explaining what the initiative is and how it works – others do it better here – but rather I’d like to talk about some of the good points and some of the not so obvious bad points so you can make up your own mind on the matter.

Before we start, it should be pointed out that, despite arising from the Finch report which has rather a lot to say about open access, this initiative actually has nothing to do with open access as most people understand the term, and should not be confused with developments in this area.

Lets begin by looking at some of the good stuff that the initiative promises:

1. Costs

Firstly, the cost to participating libraries and the general public is zero. The initiative is intended to be free at point of use for the user, and free for libraries to sign up to participate with all the costs being borne by the publishers. While we are not aware of the actual costs they are presumably not trivial. Hazarding an educated guess I doubt you’ll see much change from £100k if you wanted to set up a two year pilot preceded by a 3 month technical trial.

2. Content

The 17 publishers that are included at the start of the pilot have contributed between 1.25 to 1.5 million articles from a portfolio of approximately 8000 journals. The figures remain a bit hazy as David Willetts in his launch presentation mentions one figure and the promotional text states another. However, knowing how these kind of statistics are pulled together I can appreciate the vagueness.  At a first glance this is a sizable corpus of material to access for free, although I will return to this point to put the figure in more context later on.

3. Building bridges

One of the less tangible benefits of this initiative is that it could help to break down barriers between research and the wider community. The portrayal of science in the popular media is personal bug bear of mine. For many people the only exposure they have to current research topics is when they are covered in the newspapers and television news. Unfortunately lazy journalism seems to propagate an ‘us v them’ mentality – one of the most commonly heard phrases in the news must be “Scientists state that X causes cancer*” which is rarely productive for all involved. If journalists or the public can engage better with the primary literature (i.e. find more interesting news articles to broadcast/ carry out follow up reading) then this can only help with perceptions and engagement with research. Even proponents of the Access to Research initiative admit that a key challenge is how to digest information obtained from scholarly journals. At least making the literature available for citizens to begin to make informed decisions is a good start.

*where X is an activity/thing regularly done/consumed by the public

4. Footfall

At a time when public libraries are struggling in the face of cuts to maintain services and prove their relevance librarians will seize upon any opportunity to offer more services for no initial outlay (other than staff training). Already there is anecdotal evidence* that offering new services such as Access to Research will entice new users who wouldn’t normally think of visiting. Although most people would agree that providing information online is much more desirable, an increased footfall at public libraries is a good thing.

* Sarah Faulder at 7min20 mentions  “ ….a glowing testimonial”

5. Usability

Although I’ve not yet actually used the pilot Access to Research service, from all accounts the search delivery service – Summon from ProQuest – is extremely easy to use and doesn’t require specialised training to use. Furthermore, it doesn’t require tricky authentication to access on site which is a major failing whenever I’ve tried to use some online electronic public library services in the past.

6. Leadership

Another less tangible benefit mentioned by David Willetts is ‘thought leadership’ and UK PLC to be seen to be doing the right thing.


Now lets move on to some of the criticisms raised against the initiative:

1. Terms & Conditions

Perhaps some of the most serious criticisms are the limitations imposed on accessing the content. It always pays to read the small print which reveals serious restrictions on use – here are some of the worst:

  • I will only use the publications accessed through this search for my own personal, e.g. non-commercial research and private study
  • I will not download onto disc, CD or USB memory sticks or other portable devices or otherwise save, any publications accessed through this search;
  • I will not allow the making of any derivative works from any of the publications accessed through this search;
  • I will not copy otherwise retain, store or divert any of the publications accessed through this search onto my own personal systems;


Some of these points are extremely patronising – the derivative works one for example. We have all heard the famous quote that science is based upon standing on the shoulders of giants. To not be able to make derivative works goes against one of the underlying principles of scholarship. What this point makes clear is that users are meant to be consumers not creators of knowledge.

Other more knowledgeable folk like Cameron Neylon make a more eloquent assessment of the problems these terms and conditions create. All I want to add to this discussion is that in this day and age there is no reason to force users to adopt restrictions on use that are only appropriate for print media, unless you wish to severely handicap the usefulness and therefore the uptake of the service.

2. Postcode lottery

Closely related to the point above, but sufficiently serious to warrant its own point is the postcode lottery of whether you can actually use the walk in service. With 10 local authorities participating in the technical pilot and 11 new authorities joining, that means there are 400 libraries at the start of the initiative. There are around 4,265 public libraries which means the coverage is less than 10%. You could say that some access to public is better than no access at all, however the fact remains that currently the majority of UK citizens are excluded from the service. In mitigation, this is the start of a 2 year pilot and the initiative hopes to sign up a lot more local authorities as the pilot progresses. I would fully expect coverage to increase over time as more libraries opt in – although it’s hard to estimate quite what the final coverage will be.

3. Content put in context

1.25 – 1.5 million articles sound like a lot of content to read. However, if you consider that there are around 46.1 million records in Web of Science; and it is estimated that in 2006 the total number of articles published was approximately 1.35 million, the range of articles you can access through the initiative is a drop in the ocean. So if you are lucky to live close to enough to walk in to a participating library you can only access the equivalent of the research that was produced last year. As far as I know the selection process to be included in Access to Research is opaque – what papers are chosen and who decides?

4. Preserving the status quo

Perhaps one the most disappointing points for me is that this initiative is trying to preserve the status quo of academic publishing. It’s firmly rooted in the print distribution model and has built in sufficient obstacles for users to overcome that it is setting itself up for failure. The initiative goes against nearly all of Ranganathan’s five laws of library science:

i. Books are for use

…but the articles are digitally chained to prevent their removal.

ii. Every reader his [or her] book

…but the majority of readers can’t visit a participating library

iii. Every book its reader

…but the portfolio of journals is not comprehensive.

iv. Save the time of the reader

….restrictive terms and conditions prevent this.

v. The library is a growing organism.

….perhaps this is the saving grace as there is room for improvement.


5. Motivations

I’d like to take time to consider the motivations behind the initiative. Commercial organisations do not do anything for free unless there is a benefit somewhere further along the line. To put it in the crudest possible terms the benefits are the holy trinity of cash, turf or fame. The Access to Research initiative certainly ticks all three of these boxes.

The Publishers Licensing Society who have co-ordinated the Access to Research initiative, and Nature Publishing Group have been very forthright in admitting that the scheme is about ‘creating a new audience for information’ and opening ‘another channel to the market’ for their content. I can’t comment on how publishers actually intend to monetise the situation, but the standard Modus operandi is to develop a market then sell products directly to it.

It has been widely commented that there has been a great deal of hard lobbying by publishers to position paid-for Gold Open Access services as the main method of delivery of open access in the Finch Report. The focus on Gold OA has been widely criticised by a broad spectrum of the academic community and has resulted in a partial backtrack. In the face of renewed criticism academic publishers will be keen to please to government and show everyone they are the good guys:

“Government has been extremely pleased to see how publishers have tenaciously

pursued their welcome proposal for a Public Library Initiative (PLI) in the national and

public interest.”

Certainly the response (above) from the Rt Hon David Willetts to Prof Dame Janet Finch indicates they are heading along the right lines.

6. Access to public funded research

In the last few years there has been legislative movement in the States pushing towards taxpayer access to publicly funded research, and this viewpoint is gaining momentum in the UK. One of the main criticisms levelled at the current subscription model is that public funded money is being used to produce the research, but the fruits of the labour are not available to the people who funded it. One way to stop dead this argument is to say the public has access to all the research they need through an initiative like Access to Research.

Personally I would rather not rely on the generosity of third parties to deliver a sub-set of content (from an opaque selection of materials), that can have access removed at any time (2 year pilot), and is made difficult to access (via restrictive terms and conditions of use). I would rather see all content funded by taxpayers (either directly via research councils, or indirectly via universities or other sources) to be available freely via the internet (either in a repository or via an open access publisher), preferably with generous reuse rights granted up front.

The Too Long; Didn’t Read (tl;dr) summary

My own personal take on all of this is that the ‘Access to Research’ is a step in the right direction, but falls short in the implementation, and is driven by motivations that are not so altruistic as you might first think.

Culture clash: Elsevier, academia.edu and copyright

Could academics have taken steps to avoid Elsevier’s takedown notices? (Image c/o Horia Varlan on Flickr.)

Last week the academic publisher Elsevier issued several thousand takedown notices to the academia.edu website, requesting that they remove PDFs of academic articles that authors had uploaded to the site. While this may have turned out to be another PR disaster for Elsevier after the Twitter backlash, it’s worth remembering that they are acting within their legal rights and are exhibiting perfectly rational behaviour from the perspective of the system they operate within. (Elsevier have issued a response.)

Academia.edu is a platform which acts as a social network for academics who can share articles by uploading PDFs to add to their profile. Whether this practice is legal or not depends on a case by case basis on the policy of the journal and/or publisher of the original article, and whether the author signed a copyright transfer agreement with the publisher.

If authors want to retain control of their copyright in order to allow their work to be more widely shared there are several options, including:

1) publish in an open access journal;

2) if publishing in a subscription access journal, make sure you have permission to archive a copy (if not the final publishers’ version then at least a pre-print) in an open access repository;1

3) negotiate terms with the publishers.

This third point is something which I’d like to see more authors take advantage of – authors all too often don’t negotiate the details of their contract but simply sign the agreement they are presented with. Authors may not necessarily get exactly what they ask for if they negotiate, but it’s certainly worth asking. Traditional academic publishers typically ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement which legally transfers the copyright of the work to the publisher. These agreements often include clauses which allow authors to deposit their work in an institutional repository and also host them on a personal website. Academia.edu does not fall into either of these categories.

An alternative to a copyright transfer agreement is a ‘license to publish’, in which authors retain copyright while allowing a publisher to make their work available.2 This flips the power dynamic back in favour of the researcher. Not all publishers will allow it, but it’s another option for authors to be aware of.

So while I agree with those affected by Elsevier’s take down notices that they should be allowed to share their work freely, it’s important to note that there are steps they could have taken to prevent Elsevier having this control over their work in the first place. Of course, it might be argued that some of the options outlined above are not possible for authors due to pressure to publish in ‘high impact’ journals. However, for many disciplines there are now open access journals with high impact factors, and even if authors decide to go with a non-open publisher, there is still an opportunity to negotiate.

In conclusion: yes, Elsevier’s actions were against authors’ interests and detrimental to the furtherance of knowledge, but they are merely the inevitable symptoms of a broken system. Hopefully their actions will have some positive effect by bringing this issue to the attention of more academics, who will re-think how they deal with publishers and consider alternative routes to publication.

By Stuart Lawson


1. Journal self-archiving policies can be checked at SHERPA/RoMEO.

2. Morris et al., 2013. The handbook of journal publishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.331.