Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter Dec 2017

As the deadline for each column approaches,  I hope to write about something other than journal publishing, but lately there has been so much news from that direction that it is hard to ignore.
In 2014 Timothy Gowers and others used Freedom of Information laws  to discover the amounts paid by UK universities for journal subscriptions to Elsevier. The reason they did this was that Elsevier (and SpringerNature, and maybe other publishers) insist very strongly on confidentiality agreements when they sign contracts with universities. The presumed reason for such insistence is that this makes their job of profit maximization much easier by lowering the bargaining ability of the universities.
The UK data showed that not only was each university spending a large amount, these numbers varied substantially even between universities with very similar size and research profile.
Earlier work in the USA and later work in Finland and Netherland  have confirmed this overall picture. In 2014 I wrote toall NZ universities except Lincoln (for no really good reason, and I should rectify this, although it is only 1/4 the size of the next smallest university), requesting information of subscriptions paid to Elsevier, Springer, Taylor \& Francis, and Wiley (the first three are actually divisions of larger companies RELX, SpringerNature, Informa). These are the top 4 publishers in terms of expenditure by most libraries, although they account for considerably less than half of total journal expenditure. The universities concerned have around 8400 EFT academic/research staff and 130000 EFT students.
As expected, all the universities refused, and it was clear from the similarity of their answers that they had help from the publishers. Unlike the situation in UK there was no right of review of these refusals at a university level, so I complained next to the Ombudsman, citing the Official Information Act 1982.
After over 3 years of delays of all types, the Ombudsman’s final report  unambiguously ruled in my favour, and the universities eventually supplied the information. So now we know how much they have spent, and the results are illuminating. Because of the fact that payments were made in various currencies, I have had to make some assumptions on exchange rates based on historical data. The raw data is available on Figshare.
  •  For just these 4 publishers, the 7 universities paid NZ$19.4 million in 2016 in order to rent access to journal articles.
  • This amounts to $2300 per academic/research staff member.
  •  For comparison, the Marsden Fund awarded $84.6 million this year, a big increase on previous years.
  • In the period 2013-2016, the amount paid rose by 17%, whereas CPI inflation in NZ and most other developed countries was around 3% over that period.
Longtime readers of this column will have no doubt about my opinion on these data. A huge waste of public money is occurring – independent estimates of the real cost of production of journal articles by modern publishers put it around US$500 per article, at most, while the current setup yields income 10 times that for the large publishers. These publishers make profits of around 40%, unmatched in any other legal industry.
The big publishers realise that the current subscription model is not sustainable. Although the way they market journal bundles — “Big Deals” — helps to insulate them from cancellations, such cancellations by academic libraries are slowly increasing, because the cost increases year on year re simply too much for budgets to bear. The publishers have seized upon the author-pay open access model as a way to protect their revenue. This model  has serious resistance from researchers in fields such as mathematics.
Readers interested in learning about how we got to such an unpleasant situation should read this article. Readers interested in helping to get us out of the situation could do worse than to contact me at

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