Europe drives push for free science journal access

Most of the world’s innovative science originates in public universities and non-profits, but to see the results of that research, readers have to either buy expensive subscriptions to scientific journals or pay hefty single user, limited-time access charges ranging for a few dollars to as high as $70, judging from our own experience.

The charges have steadily risen as science journals undergo the corporate consolidation process that has plagued print and electronic journalistic.

Here’s the last price survey from the Library Journal reflecting typical prices for one-year academic journal subscriptions:

What makes the problem worse for college and university libraries is that the major publishers have pushed for so-called Big Deal contracts forcing institutions to buy all their publications as a bundle. While the cost for individual subscriptions is lower in a bundle, libraries wind up with dozens of publications of little or no interest to students or4 faculty.

Butt there’s a revolution at work, as the University of Virginia reported 20 December:

In the 1990s, large publishers began marketing bundles of online journals to libraries at a discount. However, since the year 2000, the cost of journals has outpaced both inflation and library budgets, with publishers justifying increases by adding titles that libraries and faculty often do not want. As a result, a growing percentage of collections expenditures have been going toward keeping a shrinking percentage of desired titles. In spring 2019 UVA University Librarian John Unsworth joined six other Deans and Directors of research libraries at Virginia public doctoral institutions in signing an open letter supporting a decision by the University of California library system not to renew its $11 million-a-year scholarly journal subscription with academic publishing behemoth Elsevier. Since then, more institutions have ended or downsized their financial commitments to big publishers.

The publishers’ refusal to remedy an unsustainable purchasing model that locks research behind a paywall puts them at odds with scholars, who strongly prefer the impact of having their work available for free to anyone online. Even the federal government has signaled its interest in ensuring immediate public access to all taxpayer-funded research.

The seven Virginia institutions agree with their peers in the UC system and elsewhere — they can no longer invest in a broken model, paying faculty to produce scholarship which they then must purchase back from publishers at exorbitant rates. When the letter was written in 2019, several large journal packages consumed about 40 percent of the seven libraries’ collections budgets, affecting their ability to build collections most useful to scholarly communities. By 2025, if nothing changes, Elsevier alone is expected to take up 22.7 percent of UVA’s collections budget.

A fascinating 27 June 2017 report in the Guardian describes the way the journal publishing game works at Elsevier, the biggest player of all:

The core of Elsevier’s operation is in scientific journals, the weekly or monthly publications in which scientists share their results. Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year.

But Elsevier’s business model seemed a truly puzzling thing. In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.

The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committee report on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliers are paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred to it as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”.

Academic publishers’ unique advantage: A captive stable of authors

Writing in the open source journal of the Royal Society, Britain’s [and the world’s] oldest national scientific academy, three noted scholars describe the conditions that basically force academics to feed the beast:

In academia, the phrase ‘publish or perish’ is more than a pithy witticism—it reflects the reality that researchers are under immense pressure to continuously produce outputs, with career advancement dependent upon them]. Academic publications are deemed a proxy for scientific productivity and ability, and with an increasing number of scientists competing for funding, the previous decades have seen an explosion in the rate of scientific publishing. Yet while output has increased dramatically, increasing publication volume does not imply that the average trustworthiness of publications has improved.


Despite their vital importance in conveying accurate science, top-tier journals possess a limited number of publication slots and are thus overwhelmingly weighted towards publishing only novel or significant results. Despite the fact that null results and replications are important scientific contributions,the reality is that journals do not much care for these findings. Researchers are not rewarded for submitting these findings nor for correcting the scientific record, as high-profile examples attest. This pressure to produce positive results may function as a perverse incentive. Edwards & Roy argue that such incentives encourage a cascade of questionable findings and false positives. Heightened pressure on academics has created an environment where ‘Work must be rushed out to minimize the danger of being scooped’. The range of questionable behaviour itself is wide. Classic‘fraud’ (falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (FFP) [20]) may be far less important than more subtle questionable research practices, which might include selective reporting of (dependent) variables, failure to disclose experimental conditions and unreported data exclusions. So how common are such practices? A study of National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded early and mid-career scientists (n=3247) found that within the previous 3 years, 0.3% admitted to falsification of data, 6% to a failure to present conflicting evidence and a worrying 15.5% to changing of study design, methodology or results in response to funder pressure. An overview by Fanelli has shown that questionable research practices are as common as 75%, while fraud per se occurs only in 1–3% of scientists

We would also argue that the pressure to publish is the primary reason reason schools are relying on graduate students to teach classes once taught by the researchers themselves, depriving undergraduate students of the chance to learn from mentors who have offloaded their teaching responsibilities onto the backs of overworked and underpaid graduate assistants and non-tenured faculty.

And they, too, need their publications if they’re to have chance at landing a tenured position.

An academic stranglehold

Last 18 February the McGill University Tribune in Canada noted the stranglehold the top publishers hold on academic publishing:

Elsevier dominates the industry. A 2015 report from Vincent Larivière of the Université de Montréal (UdeM) showed that Elsevier controls roughly a quarter of the scientific journal market, while competitors Springer and Wiley-Blackwell own nearly another quarter between them. The stranglehold that these companies have on the industry has allowed them to charge astronomically high subscription fees to universities, which had to field a 215 per cent increase in such fees between 1986 and 2003. These fees have come to claim an ever larger portion of university library budgets; in the 2018-2019 school year, McGill paid nearly $1.9 million to Elsevier alone for a subscription to ScienceDirect.

Elsevier has been growing the way most businesses grow these days, by swallowing the competition. Here’s a 15 January 2015 report from Science on their biggest play:

The London-based publisher of Nature and Scientific American, Macmillan Science and Education, announced today that it will merge with Berlin-based Springer Science+Business Media, one of the world’s largest science, technology, and medicine publishers. Together, the duo will generate an estimated $1.75 billion in annual sales and employ some 13,000 people. 

The German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which owns Macmillan Science and Education, will own 53% of the new company. BC Partners, a private equity firm that owns Springer+Business Media, will hold the rest. In 2013, BC Partners bought Springer in a deal worth approximately $3.8 billion.

The move is “aimed at securing the long-term growth of both businesses,” BC Partners said in a statement. Eventually, the firm aims to sell the new publishing giant, perhaps by transforming it into a publicly held company, managing partner Ewald Walgenbach told reporters. “The most likely exit will be an IPO [initial public offering],” he told Reuters. “However, that is still at least 2-3 years away.”

Elsevier and the other journal giants are militant in pursuing their control over the vastly profitable business, as the MIT Libraries explained in their examination of the Elsevier’s actions during one critical year:

In 2011, Elsevier supported the Research Works Act (RWA), a bill that would have made illegal the NIH Public Access Policy, along with any other similar government effort to make taxpayer-funded research openly accessible to the public. Following public outcry, including a boycottElsevier withdrew its support, just hours before the bill’s sponsors declared it dead. In their statement, Elsevier indicated they would still “continue to oppose government mandates in this area.”

Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 contributions to members of the House in 2011, of which 12 went to Representative Maloney (NY) one of the sponsors of RWA.

The MIT Press was the first to disavow the Association of American Publishers’ support of RWA. Nature and Science and several university presses followed MIT Press’ lead with disavowals of their own.

Also in 2011, Elsevier supported the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which threatened free speech and innovation, in part by enabling law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains for infringing material posted on a single web page. In comparison, competitors Springer, Wiley, and Taylor & Francis did not make public statements in support.

In other words, a classic example of what economists call rent-seeking.

Another graphic, this one from a research report published in the open source journal PLOS One in 2015 offers convincing proof that academic publishing is an oligopoly:

Percentage of papers published by the five major publishers, by discipline in the Natural and Medical Sciences, 1973–2013.

But the major publishers want to control even more of the knowledge flowing from taxpayer-funded institutions, as Bloomberg reported 30 June 2020:

In an article published in Science in May, Aspesi and MIT Press Director Amy Brand warned that Elsevier and other big publishers are positioning themselves to play ever bigger roles in measuring researchers’ productivity and universities’ quality, and possibly even to act as one-stop portals for the global exchange of information within scientific disciplines. “The dominance of a limited number of social networks, shopping services, and search engines shows us how internet platforms based on data and analytics can tend toward monopoly,” they wrote. Such concentration isn’t inevitable in scientific communication, they concluded, but preventing it will require “the academic community to act in coordination.”

Changes under way in Europe

But changes are in the works, according to a report published yesterday in Science, the Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

In 2018, a group of mostly European funders sent shock waves through the world of scientific publishing by proposing an unprecedented rule: The scientists they funded would be required to make journal articles developed with their support immediately free to read when published.

The new requirement, which takes effect starting this month, seeks to upend decades of tradition in scientific publishing, whereby scientists publish their research in journals for free and publishers make money by charging universities and other institutions for subscriptions. Advocates of the new scheme, called Plan S (the “S” stands for the intended “shock” to the status quo), hope to destroy subscription paywalls and speed scientific progress by allowing findings to be shared more freely. It’s part of a larger shift in scientific communication that began more than 20 years ago and has recently picked up steam.

Scientists have several ways to comply with Plan S, including by paying publishers a fee to make an article freely available on a journal website, or depositing the article in a free public repository where anyone can download it. The mandate is the first by an international coalition of funders, which now includes 17 agencies and six foundations, including the Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, two of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research.

The group, which calls itself Coalition S, has fallen short of its initial aspiration to catalyze a truly international movement, however. Officials in three top producers of scientific papers—China, India, and the United States—have expressed general support for open access, but have not signed on to Plan S. Its mandate for immediate open access will apply to authors who produced only about 6% of the world’s papers in 2017, according to an estimate by the Clarivate analytics firm, publisher of the Web of Science database.

Still, there’s reason to think Coalition S will make an outsize impact, says Johan Rooryck, Coalition S’s executive director and a linguist at Leiden University. In 2017, 35% of papers published in Nature and 31% of those in Science cited at least one coalition member as a funding source. “The people who get [Coalition S] funding are very prominent scientists who put out very visible papers,” Rooryck says. “We punch above our weight.” In a dramatic sign of that influence, the Nature and Cell Press families of journals—stables of high-profile publications—announced in recent weeks that they would allow authors to publish papers outside their paywall, for hefty fees.

However, as Jefferson Pooley of the London School of Economics writes, there are problems with the new model:

The deals offer, in Roger Schonfeld’s phrase, “to crown the existing major publishers as the OA [open access] Royalty.” Any open future, the reasoning goes, will be underwritten by the library expenditures already in the system. By hoovering those up—by sheltering their windfall profits—the big five are, at the same time, starving would-be competitors. Elsevier and the others are, as Richard Poynder has observed, “embedding themselves and their high prices into the new OA world, while elbowing aside OA publishers like Hindawi and PLOS.” There’s the related problem that the deals’ terms, in most cases, aren’t made public. So the pricing transparency that was supposed to discipline the APC—by introducing price-dampening competition for authors—is, in practice, obscured.

More fundamentally, the move to fold in author fees is an implicit endorsement of the deeply flawed APC regime—one that lowers barriers to readers only to raise them for authors. For scholars in the Global South—and in the humanities and social sciences everywhere—the APC option is laughably beyond reach. Yes, some publishers offer fee waivers, but the system is limited, shoddy, and patronizing—a charity band-aid on a broken system. Since author fees are stitched into read-and-publish deals, the approach serves to ratify—and secure in place—a scholarly publishing system underwritten by the APC. The deals also prop up, at least temporarily, the “hybrid” journal—the thousands of titles that publish tolled- and open-access articles side-by-side. Authors covered by the deals have every incentive to publish in hybrids: These are, very often, the established journals, marinated in prestige, and—unsurprisingly—the outlets that register the largest OA advantage.

More from the Association of College & Research Libraries:

Libraries and the faculty and institutions they serve are participants in the unusual business model that funds traditional scholarly publishing. Faculty produce and edit, typically without any direct financial advantage, the content that publishers then evaluate, assemble, publish and distribute. The colleges and universities that employ these faculty authors/editors then purchase, through their libraries, that packaged content back at exorbitant prices for use by those same faculty and their students. This unusual business model where the “necessary inputs” are provided free of cost to publishers who then in return sell that “input” back to the institutions that pay the salaries of the persons producing it has given rise to an unsustainable system begging for transformation. 

The subscription prices charged to institutions has far outpaced the budgets of the institutions’ libraries who are responsible for paying those bills. Years of stagnant university funding and the economic downturn rendered many library budgets flat, while journal pricing continued to rise. This problem became known as the “serials crisis.” Another element of the serials crisis that has been subject to discussion and debate has been the “big deal,” which is when large commercial publishers sell their complete list of titles to libraries at less than what a la carte pricing for titles would be individually. Some postulate that the big deal has helped negate the effects of the serials crisis while others argue that it actually hurts more than it helps.

But there’s a problem with the Big Deal

A problem that could better be described as the Big Screw.

University of California, Davis Librarian and Vice Provost MacKenzie Smith explained in an article for the open access journal The Conversation:

Under the new business model of licensing access to journals online rather than distributing them in print, for-profit publishers often lock libraries into bundled subscriptions that wrap the majority of a publisher’s portfolio of journals – almost 3,000 in Elsevier’s case – into a single, multimillion dollar package. Rather than storing back issues on shelves, libraries can lose permanent access to journals when a contract expires. And members of the public can no longer read the library’s copy of a journal because the licenses are limited to members of the university. Now the public must buy online copies of academic articles for an average of US$35 to $40 a pop.

The shift to digital has been good for researchers in many ways. It is far more convenient to search for articles online, and easier to access and download a copy – provided you work for an institution with a paid subscription. Modern software makes organizing and annotating them simpler, too. With all of these benefits, no one would advocate for going back to the old days of print journals.

Online access to journals did not improve the picture overall. Despite digital copies of articles costing nothing to duplicate and the cost of producing an article online being lower than in the past, the cost to libraries of licensing access to them has continued to experience hyperinflation. No library can afford to license all the journals its faculty and students want access to, and many researchers around the world are shut out completely. Compounding the problem, consolidation in the scholarly publishing market has reduced competition significantly, causing even more price inflexibility.

The Times of London on 12 March 2020 reported on the costs of academic journals to colleges and universities in the United Kingdom:

UK negotiators have vowed to strike “cost-effective and sustainable” deals with big publishers, as figures reveal that subscriptions to academic journals and other publishing charges are likely to have cost UK universities more than £1 billion over the past decade.

Data obtained using Freedom of Information requests show that UK universities paid some £950.6 million to the world’s 10 biggest publishing houses between 2010 and 2019. For the sector as a whole, however, the overall bill is likely to have topped £1 billion as one in five universities, including several Russell Group institutions, failed to provide cost information.

More than 90 per cent of this outlay was spent with five companies: Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis and Sage, with Elsevier claiming £394 million over the 10-year period, roughly 41 per cent of monies received by big publishers.

Overall, the main publishers collected some £109.5 million in 2018-19 – up 44 per cent from 2010, when the bill was £76.1 million. In recent years, however, publishing costs have risen less sharply, climbing by 15 per cent since 2014-15.

And the Big Deal also leads to Big Profits and soaring stock prices

Here’s how share prices of RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, have performed compared to the FTSE [Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index of the top 100 most-capitalized firms on the Londson Stock Exchange], via Financial Times:

University of California stuns academic publishers

But what if libraries stood up to the publishing giants?

Here’s the 28 February 2019 announcement from the University of California’s Office of the President that sent shockwaves through the academic publishing world:

As a leader in the global movement toward open access to publicly funded research, the University of California is taking a firm stand by deciding not to renew its subscriptions with Elsevier. Despite months of contract negotiations, Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s key goal: securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals.

In negotiating with Elsevier, UC aimed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by ensuring that research produced by UC’s 10 campuses — which accounts for nearly 10 percent of all U.S. publishing output — would be immediately available to the world, without cost to the reader. Under Elsevier’s proposed terms, the publisher would have charged UC authors large publishing fees on top of the university’s multi-million dollar subscription, resulting in much greater cost to the university and much higher profits for Elsevier.

“Knowledge should not be accessible only to those who can pay,” said Robert May, chair of UC’s faculty Academic Senate. “The quest for full open access is essential if we are to truly uphold the mission of this university.” The Academic Senate issued a statement today endorsing UC’s position.

Open access publishing, which makes research freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world, fulfills UC’s mission by transmitting knowledge more broadly and facilitating new discoveries that build on the university’s research and scholarly work. This follows UC’s faculty-driven principles on scholarly communication.

“I fully support our faculty, staff and students in breaking down paywalls that hinder the sharing of groundbreaking research,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. “This issue does not just impact UC, but also countless scholars, researchers and scientists across the globe — and we stand with them in their push for full, unfettered access.”

Elsevier is the largest scholarly publisher in the world, disseminating about 18 percent of journal articles produced by UC faculty. The transformative model that UC faculty and libraries are championing would make it easier and more affordable for UC authors to publish in an open access environment.

“Make no mistake: The prices of scientific journals now are so high that not a single university in the U.S. — not the University of California, not Harvard, no institution — can afford to subscribe to them all,” said Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, university librarian and economics professor at UC Berkeley, and co-chair of UC’s negotiation team. “Publishing our scholarship behind a paywall deprives people of the access to and benefits of publicly funded research. That is terrible for society.”

Elsevier was unwilling to meet UC’s reasonable contract terms, which would integrate subscription charges and open access publishing fees, making open access the default for any article by a UC scholar and stabilizing journal costs for the university.

“The university’s, and the world’s, move toward open access has been a long time in the making. Many institutions and countries agree that the current system is both financially unsustainable and ill-suited to the needs of today’s global research enterprise,” said Ivy Anderson, associate executive director of UC’s California Digital Library and co-chair of UC’s negotiation team. “Open access will spur faster and better research — and greater global equity of access to new knowledge.”

The University of California followed up its Elsevier decision with an agreement a year late with the open access publisher PLOS, reported by the UCLA Daily Bruin 9 March 2020:

The University of California made a two-year open-access agreement Feb. 19 with the Public Library of Science, which researchers say is part of an upending of the traditional academic publishing model.

Under the deal, the UC Library will cover the first $1,000 of the article-processing charges required for researchers to publish in PLOS journals, which typically range from $1,500 to $3,000. Researchers without sufficient funds can petition the library to cover the remainder of the cost.

Academic research has traditionally been closed access, meaning universities have to pay publishers subscription costs to give researchers access to publications in academic journals.

Conversely, articles in open-access journals are publicly available at no cost to readers. Instead of subscription charges, open-access journals levy an article-processing charge to researchers once their article passes peer review.

The UC’s deal would benefit researchers with low grant funding, such as early-career researchers and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, by allowing them to submit their work to PLOS for publication more easily.

Still more universities jump on the bandwagon

West Virginia University also jumped on the unbundling bandwagon, with immediate results, as WVU Dean of Libraries Karen Diaz reported on 3 December 2018:

For two years now, West Virginia University Libraries has been working toward bringing our materials spending in line with the new budget realities that we have faced since 2016. One of the biggest challenges in our reduction in funds is managing “bundled” journals subscriptions that historically provided us with more journal title subscriptions at less cost. Unfortunately, over time the inflationary costs of these bundle subscriptions have outpaced the size of our budget.

In 2016, when we were first presented with the need to reduce our spending, bundled journal packages accounted for 30 percent of our materials budget but only provided 6.2 percent of our titles. We recognized at the time that we would have to address this significant portion of our budget to achieve the necessary savings. We did so immediately by unbundling our Wiley subscription package which provided us with about $400,000 in savings at that time. Now we are moving to unbundle the remaining packages.

Three years Later, Florida State University did the same, with a very pleasing result, as Ars Technica reported last February:

When Florida State University cancelled its “big deal” contract for all Elsevier’s 2,500 journals last March to save money, the publisher warned it would backfire and cost the library $1 million extra in pay-per-view fees.

But even to the surprise of Gale Etschmaier, dean of FSU’s library, the charges after eight months were actually less than $20,000. “Elsevier has not come back to us about ‘the big deal’,” she said, noting it had made up a quarter of her content budget before the terms were changed.

Two months later, another university followed suit as Inside Higher Ed reported 13 April 2020:

The State University of New York Libraries Consortium announced on April 7 that it will not renew its bundled journal subscription deal with publisher Elsevier.

“While both parties negotiated in earnest and tried to come to acceptable terms for SUNY to maintain access to the full ScienceDirect package, in the end there was considerable disagreement around the value proposition of the ‘big deal,’” said the SUNY Libraries Consortium in a statement.

By subscribing to a core list of 248 journals, the SUNY libraries anticipate saving around $5 to $7 million per year. They currently spend around $10 million annually.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also announced last week that it is canceling its big deal with Elsevier for budgetary reasons.

Among other libraries debundling are those of the University of North Carolina, the SUNY [State University of New York] Libraries Consortium, and Iowa State University.

The sordid roots of the academic publishing oligopoly

Writing for Med Page Today, British cardiologist Rohin Francis offers an interesting glimpse at the curious roots of the corporate academic publishing rachet [and let’s face it, who else but organized crime racks up 40 percent annual profits?]:

People outside Britain might not have heard of Robert Maxwell, but you’ve certainly heard of his daughter, the widow of convicted sex offender, and dubiously-suicided Jeffrey Epstein. Ghislaine Maxwell is the daughter of Britain’s most notorious media tycoon, Robert Maxwell, fraudster, alleged spy, and one of the inspirations for Logan Roy’s character in “Succession.”

If you go back a few decades, the idea of making money out of scientific work was absurd. Of course, businessmen used scientific ideas throughout the Industrial Revolution and people could patent use of their ideas, but knowledge itself was shared freely particularly among scientists until Maxwell realized he could turn science into profit and created Pergamon Press. Stephen Buranyi colorfully illustrates Maxwell’s rise to power and influence in his excellent article that I’m linking below.

But essentially Maxwell wowed scientists with flash hotels, glamorous parties, and cold hard cash, then signed them up to exclusive deals with his journals. We would get dinner and fine wine, and at the end, he would present us a check, a few thousand pounds for the society. It was more money than us poor scientists had ever seen.

I didn’t realize until researching this video how enormous his influence on modern science has been. The whole system has been shaped by his model: the paid subscriptions, the journalistic way controversy and novelty are prioritized, the dominance of a handful of journals, and the way scientists dream of being published in those high-profile periodicals.

Fore more on Maxwell, see this profile in the Guardian.

Clearly, academic journals have become what lawyers life to call the fruit of a poisonous tree.

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