Universities should open the black box of journal subscriptions

This is the text of an article publishing in Research Fortnight on 27 April 2016.


One of the main problems in creating policy for scholarly publishing is that we don’t know how much libraries spend on journal subscriptions or who they buy them from. Libraries don’t publish detailed accounts, big deals of journal bundles make costs difficult to disentangle, and in some cases contracts bind universities to secrecy. Without more clarity around where—and on what—the money is being spent, it is hard to work towards a fairer system.

In the UK, there is more data available than in most countries. Thanks to Freedom of Information requests, £93 million of universities’ £180m library spending is accounted for. But FOI requests involve a lot of work for all concerned and are not a sustainable solution to the problem at a global level.

Unless universities publish what they are paying out, they can’t know whether they are getting a good deal. The prices of big deals are often determined by the amount an institution was paying for print subscriptions in the 1990s, meaning that different institutions can end up paying vastly different amounts for the same content. This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense. It really only benefits publishers and seems increasingly odd in a climate moving towards open scholarship.

There has been a strong policy focus on open access in the past couple of years, especially with the mandates for open-access publishing from Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Despite this, some of the problems that open access hopes to solve—particularly the cost of subscriptions—show no signs of disappearing any time soon.

Perhaps financial transparency could prompt a change of direction. Since many librarians are questioning the value of big deals, greater awareness of any unfairness in journal pricing may spur on efforts to develop open-access funding models.

Whether subscription journals will survive in the long run is an open question. But for the moment, these journals still publish the majority of articles and receive the majority of the money in the academic publishing system. Therefore, as my colleagues and I argue in a recent paper, we need to open up the black box of how scholarly communication is funded.

A big part of this would be for universities to start publishing and sharing information on what they spend on subscriptions. Funding for article processing charges—the fees sometimes paid to publishers to make work freely accessible—is actually more transparent, thanks to data released by funders and institutions.

The UK’s higher education ICT agency Jisc is building the Monitor service to aggregate information on APC spending in the UK. We need a similar service to record spending on subscriptions, allowing each institution to say how much it is paying each publisher.

There are factors that in some cases could cause difficulties with sharing data. For example, non-disclosure clauses are present in some, although not all, publisher contracts. In these instances it is technically possible to use FOI requests to make the data public. But it would be better for institutions to see the benefit of data sharing and voluntarily participate. Support from national library consortia would also encourage universities to take part.

With a database in place we could finally build up a global picture of spending on publishers. It would become part of a broader open-data infrastructure, covering APCs, subscriptions and other elements.

Research funders in different countries could be interested in supporting this idea and could help ensure its sustainability. The present lack of financial transparency around scholarly communication is an obstacle to evidence-based policy. Researchers, decision-makers and institutions are in the dark about the systemic implications of new funding models. A more joined-up picture of financial flows is vital as a means to understand and reshape the system that is meant to help research thrive.

The most important benefit of greater transparency would be revealing where the biggest flows of money are going in the scholarly publishing system. This knowledge would allow more careful planning of how this money might be redirected to better ends. University libraries and library consortia would be able to see what deals their colleagues in other institutions and nations were getting.

Perhaps this would allow universities to lower their costs through more effective negotiation. Or, at least, it would lead to better understanding of the power that the publishing industry holds. Through collective organisation we can reallocate the resources of academia to fund the open-access publishing methods that most strongly reflect the principles of knowledge sharing.

1 thought on “Universities should open the black box of journal subscriptions

Comments are closed.