Big Deal journal bundles: price information from New Zealand

“Big deal” journal contracts by libraries with commercial publishers have been controversial for many years. Such contracts consume a large fraction of university serials budgets, and annual price increases are unsustainable in the long term. One main cause of such market dysfunction is  price secrecy, whereby some publishers (including Elsevier and Springer, certainly) insist on confidentiality clauses in contracts (other causes include bundling of journals and the apparent inability of the research community to stop using historical journal reputation to evaluate  researchers). While these companies are never short of justification for their actions, I believe that the main reason for these clauses is to facilitate differential pricing and weaken the negotiating situation of buyers.

In 2014 Timothy Gowers and others used Freedom of Information laws to extract the relevant price information from UK universities. See here for more detailed information. Earlier (2009), less extensive, work in the USA  had also been done by Ted Bergstrom and others. Inspired by this, I tried the same thing in New Zealand (for 7 of the 8 universities – representing around 8400 academic/research staff and 130000 students, so far (Lincoln University, very much smaller than the others, was omitted owing to an oversight). Whereas Gowers was able to obtain the requested information within a few weeks, it has taken me 3.5 years. In both countries universities originally refused to release the information. However, in the UK there is an automatic right of review of such decisions, undertaken by an academic. In NZ, no such right exists, and my next step was to complain directly to the Ombudsman, the government official charged with determining whether information from the state sector should be publicly disclosed (all NZ universities are public).

The process was long and required persistence.  I count at least 36 emails and several phone conversations. I commented on the preliminary report earlier this year, and the large publishers certainly had considerable input. The final report was released on 8 October 2017, more than 3 years after my first complaint. Gratifyingly, it ruled unambiguously that the commercial interests of the publishers and universities were outweighed by the public’s right to know. The universities have all complied, supplying me with the amounts spent on journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis for years 2013-2016 inclusive. There are several other problematic publishers, notably the American Chemical Society, but I had to stop somewhere. I hope that others can continue this work in NZ and other jurisdictions.

There are some subtleties (such as exactly what products from the listed publishers the money is spent on, different currencies and exchange rates) that need more clarification than space permits here. I present basic derived data here, with the almost raw data also available. Prices have been converted at an exchange rate of $NZ = EUR0.63 = US$0.77 = $A0.90 for the entire period, which is obviously not completely accurate but is my best estimate based on looking at exchange rate graphs over the period 2012-2017 from x-rates.com.

The results are qualitatively similar to those found in USA and UK. At first glance, there are some major points:

  • The total amount of money spent on just 4 publishers is substantial, around US$14.9M in 2016.
  • The mean expenditure per academic/research staff member  in 2016 is around US$1800.
  • University of Canterbury is getting a much worse deal than the others, 35% above the mean.
  • The rate of increase of  subscription costs (17%) over the period clearly exceeds the Consumer Price Index inflation rate over the period (2-3% in NZ, USA and Europe).
  • The publisher with highest percentage increase over the period was Taylor & Francis (33%).

Universal open access to (largely publicly funded) research will remove barriers to readers, but still has costs that must be paid, presumably by reallocating money currently spent on subscriptions. The GoldOA model with author-paid APCs has been popular with traditional publishers, who often set the APC level in the $2000-3000 range. The analysis above implies that wholesale conversion to such APCs will not save substantial money for NZ universities. This is of course the aim of the publishers who try to exert their market power to prevent real competition. In order to provide market price controls of APCs, it is necessary to decouple ownership of a journal title from provision of publication services. This reclaiming of community control is the most fundamental of the recently formalized Fair Open Access Principles. New organizations such as MathOA, PsyOA, LingOA   and the Fair Open Access Alliance  have been set up precisely in order to facilitate large-scale conversion of subscription journals to an open access model with community control of journals and no direct author payments. We expect that savings of at least 75% can be made by using modern publishing providers. What is the research community waiting for?

 

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