A couple of heavy-duty battering rams have hit the journal subscription system in Europe. And they are so big, this will likely set off a chain reaction that changes the scholarly communication system at least subtly – and possibly dramatically.
Let’s start with context, so the implications are clearer. This is roughly how the subscription system works for institutions. They can subscribe to individual journals, one by one. Or they can get a bundled deal on a portfolio of journals from a publisher. Either way, it’s expensive. And it never covers absolutely every possible subscription journal on the planet: articles in the rest have to be acquired either via a library that has access to the journal, or by buying that article individually from the journal.
For an individual entitled to use an institution’s library service, this is what happens. When you’re onsite or logged in from outside, you don’t hit a paywall for everything that’s either covered by the subscription deals – or is free-to-read for everyone anyway. (In biomedicine, my estimate is that about 40% of the literature that’s past embargo – over a year old – is free-to-read for everyone. It’s less, though, in other fields.)
If you hit a paywalled article, you can try to find a full text version online – say via Google Scholar, Unpaywall, the OA Button, or the pirate site, Sci-Hub. Or you can request a copy from the authors of the article, or via your institution’s library. That can be a slick online request system, with the article arriving in your email box, often within hours or a day or two – or it could be slow. (One place I worked, there were forms that had to be processed by several people even before the request got to a library.)
So the journal access issue has time implications for the day-to-day work of career scientists, just as it does for anyone outside an institution. And when a full-text is inconvenient or impossible to get hold of, it can have serious implications for the paper’s authors, too, whose work has a higher risk of sinking into relative obscurity. A change in perception about research accessibility – even a small one – could have something of a snowball effect.
From the institutional side, the subscription setup could be done alone, as part of a consortium, or it could be a service provided at the national or regional level.
On the article author side, there are charges paid to publish most of the free-to-read articles. Those could have been paid out of the same place and budget as the subscriptions, or by the funders of the work the article is reporting. Either way, it’s coming out of money that could be used for other services, or to pay for more research and salaries.
And it’s a lot of money. In 2015, the global academic journal market was estimated at $10 billion, with a very large chunk of that going to profit, not costs. For perspective, that year the NIH spent just under $16 billion on research project grants, the Gates Foundation, over $4 billion on all types of grants, and the Wellcome Trust awarded over $1 billion in new grants.
That brings us to Europe’s dramatically changed relationship with the scholarly publishing giant, Elsevier.
The company estimated that it published 16% of all scholarly articles in 2015, in around 2,500 journals. Its ScienceDirect platform now has 3,800 journals. Revenue for its whole science/tech/med arm was over $3.25 billion in 2017, with before-tax profit of 36.8% – an increase over the previous year. [PDF] ($ will always be US dollars in this post.)
The publishers don’t charge institutions the same price, and to keep their negotiating advantage, they include keeping the terms secret as part of the deal. You can get an idea of what this means on the ground, though, from some information that has nevertheless made it into the public arena:
- The UK paid Elsevier around $52.3 million for annual journal subscriptions for 2014.
- The Netherlands is paying over $14 million in 2018 for subscriptions for universities nationally. [PDF]
- New York: the State Comptroller reports City University is paying an average of over $2 million a year for ScienceDirect, and there’s an average of at least another $8.6 million a year for the state.
Germany and Sweden have just refused to keep paying what Elsevier is demanding for access to their journal portfolio – and walked away from negotiating further with the company. Both countries were seeking sustainable nation-wide deals for their academic institutions that covered both the cost of reading journals and the charges for publishing free-to-read articles in them. Deals are being made, or still negotiated, with other publishers.
Both countries, too, have ensured that their academic communities understand the issues, and thus are supportive enough to withstand a change in how they use journals. In Germany, 41 professors from across the country had resigned from editorships at Elsevier journals by April 2018, in solidarity with the goal of affordable, sustainable, scholarly communication. A groundswell of academics away from contributing to, and using, Elsevier journals could have consequential ripple effects.
For Germany, the effects of “no deal” on journal access will roll out at different times across the country. Subscriptions hadn’t been centralized before, so some contracts for Elsevier deals are still going. Germany is a giant in the research world, so its clout – and the impact of the country’s academic sector changing its relationship to Elsevier – will be serious. Of the 4 “no Elsevier deal” countries at the moment, 3 are in the OECD, accounting for 9% of the OECD’s research expenditure – Germany alone spends 6% (more than twice as much as the UK). [OECD R&D data for 2017]
Here’s the current “no Elsevier zone” in a map, with all 4 countries that have rejected Elsevier deals nationally colored red:
All the gray countries have to pay Elsevier subscriptions or individual article access for everything – we don’t know, though, how much of these countries have subscription deals with Elsevier. For the ones colored turquoise, academic institutions can get exemptions to subscriptions for biomedical literature only, because they are lower income countries covered by the HINARI initiative. They still have to pay for the rest of the subscription journals.
Peru took the leap away from Elsevier when their economy improved enough to bump them out of HINARI eligibility, but not enough to be able to afford steep journal subscriptions. And spending cuts were hitting the university sector. In Taiwan, the consortium covering 75% of the country’s university simply took a stand against Elsevier’s high prices.
A couple of years ago, the zone would have included Greece and Russia, as economic crunch and/or currency fluctuations put subscriptions out of reach there. For the last few years, too, Finland, France, and the Netherlands have all teetered on the brink, but reached at least temporary deals with Elsevier. For them, it was more about willingness to pay, than ability to – and it was mostly a negotiating tactic to push down prices. And as with Germany, the academic community was on board for this. In Finland, 481 academics signed up to boycott editing and peer reviewing for Elsevier journals if there was no deal.
In Sweden, the money that would have been spent on the Elsevier big bundle is being diverted to pay the charges for academics to publish in subscription-free open access journals. The National Library of Sweden will work out some kind of pay-per-view article arrangement with Elsevier.
In Germany, there will be some kind of centralized arrangement based on inter-library loans and pay-per-view as well.
We don’t know yet what impact all this will have on costs, convenience, readership, and citation. Here’s what a university in the US reported on, after it canceled its big deal with Wiley a few years ago – a drop in costs.
One of the effects of the national negotiations happening in Europe is cracking the secrecy around the costs of the big publisher deals – and growing academic awareness of the case for change. Germany and Sweden pushing the major publisher past the brink will surely embolden at least some other negotiators and academics to drive harder bargains.
The biggest potential impact won’t come from cost savings, though. That would come from reducing the value placed on high impact factor journals, and boosting non-subscription open access publishing. And that requires academics in influential parts of the ecosystem to change. They, after all, choose how they publish their societies’ journals, where they submit articles, for whom they volunteer peer review and editing services, and how they reward peers.
Access to subscription journals has always been patchy globally, and for everyone not aligned to institutions that can pay for them. Jolting the luckiest parts of academia from the comfort of being able to ignore this could change everything.
More on developments in open access policies in my annual roundups from 2013.
SPARC keeps track of the big deal cancellations made public here.