ASPI background briefing on proposed action to reduce journal prices in member libraries

Note: This is primarily intended as a comprehensive briefing document for library staff about RLUK’s collective stance on journal prices, hence the comparatively high level of detail it contains. Colleagues are asked to draw upon it to create their own material, suitable for particular local audiences.

Some background facts:

UK universities now pay an estimated £192m per year to publishers for journal and database access[1]– equivalent to almost a tenth of the total QR grant[2].

Journal costs worldwide have been rising well above inflation for several decades. In the UK, journal prices rose 158% between 1991 and 2001[3]– over five times the level of CPI inflation [4]. Figures for the United States show that, between 1986 and 2000, journal prices rose by almost four times the level of CPI inflation, and more than three times the level of inflation in book prices [5]. Journal prices rises have moderated slightly in recent years but the costs of the “Big Deals” for Elsevier, Blackwell, Wiley and Wiley Blackwell journals, for example,  still all rose by more than double the rate of CPI inflation in the six years from 2004 to 2010 [6]

Libraries do get access to more content than in the era of printed journals, but this is a consequence of the change from print to electronic delivery, which reduces to near zero the marginal cost to a publisher of granting access to a journal to additional subscribers. Other industries that have benefitted from the ease of information and data transmission which the internet makes possible have achieved both increases in productivity andsignificant price reductions.

Significantly reduced demand for journals in print form [7] has reduced publishers’ printing and distribution costs well below the level at which they would have been had print delivery remained the norm.

Much of the labour of contributing to the production of academic journal articles is provided by university staff free of charge. The contribution our researchers make to editing and peer-reviewing journal articles costs our universities between £145m and £195m annually [8]

What is the ground of our objection to publisher price increases and what do we want?

Prices have increased by several times the rate of inflation, and there is no recognition, in the prices universities are charged, that journals are essentially produced as a partnership between researchers and publishers.

We want a healthy, competitive and appropriately profitable academic publishing industry that charges reasonable prices to universities.  At the moment the market in scientific publishing is severely dysfunctional: there is no effective competition on price; there is wide use of confidentiality clauses making price comparison very difficult; and there is severe difficulty in “unbundling” expensive multi-journal packages at a reasonable price.

Why is excessive journal inflation a problem for universities?

Over the past ten years university revenues have been sufficiently buoyant to accommodate above-inflation increases in journal prices. Real terms reductions in research funding will change this.

Journal inflation has distorted the acquisitions policies of libraries over a number of decades now, leading to lower levels of book acquisition, with particularly harmful consequences for both research and teaching in the arts and humanities. In the eight years between 2001 and 2009, mean expenditure on books per RLUK member increased by a tiny 0.17%  ( a considerable real terms decrease), while mean expenditure on journals increased by 82%.[9] The Research Information Network has calculated that book expenditure in RLUK libraries as a proportion of overall expenditure has declined from 11% in 1999 to just over 7% in 2009 [10]

High subscriptions prices for journals impede access to scientific research and slow down the pace of scientific and medical progress. As an example of how serious this barrier to access is, evidence offered by BioMed Central to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology showed that the NHS had access to little more than 40% of the journal articles resulting from research it had funded.[11]

What is RLUK proposing to do?

We are proposing to take action on the “Big Deals” provided by Elsevier and Wiley Blackwell, both of which come up for renewal at the end of 2011.

We intend to demand (i) a restoration of the Big Deal price to be negotiated for 2012-15 for both these packages to the cash levels they were at in 2007; and (ii) acceptance of the position that the publishers should achieve efficiency gains and concomitant real-terms price reductions after 2015.

We will also require an end to pre-payments and invoicing in sterling to avoid the unpredictability caused to university budgets by currency fluctuations.

This will be undertaken as an RLUK initiative, but we are seaeking deals for all UK HE.

What are the advantage of what we are proposing and what are the drawbacks?

If we succeed in negotiations with Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell, it would be difficult for other publishers to impose profiteering price rises.

Cumulative annual savings for UK universities, if we were to achieve 0% journal price rises between now and 2015, would be £65m [12] (as against a scenario of 6% annual inflation in journal prices) and £104m [13] (assuming a scenario of 9% annual journal inflation)

We have to be prepared to withhold payment for subscriptions for a time if necessary, or we have no bargaining power at all. If this situation arises there will inevitably be inconvenience for our researchers. However, we will ensure that we have adequate contingency arrangements in place to ensure that Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell articles can be made available, albeit with a slight delay, through inter library loan and other arrangements.

What if we do nothing?

Scenario 1: if no significant journal cancellations are made:

UK universities currently spend an amount on journals equivalent to a tenth of the total QR grant. If QR were to remain at the same level , the proportion of QR consumed by journal costs would rise to an eighth by 2015 at an assumed annual journal inflation rate of 6%, and to 15%  if 9% annual journal inflation is assumed [14].

Scenario 2: if universities do have to reduce their spending on journals, but not as part of any co-ordinated campaign.

Ad hoc cancellations of Big Deals would have to be made at individual institutions. The consequences of this for research would be more serious than the action we are proposing, because they would lead to a permanent, not temporary, reduction in the information available to researchers. It would also put far less pressure upon publishers because the effect would be spread across a number of different publishers.


[1] SCONUL Statistics 2008/9. Precise 2008/9 figure is £171,296,880 – a combination of total journal expenditure (column 7b) of £135,272,762, and database expenditure  (column  7h) of £ 36,024,117. The figure is uprated to reflect an estimated subsequent two years of inflation at 6% per  year, yielding an estimated current figure of £192,469,174

[2] Figure is  a composite of available figures for 2009/10 and 2010/11 of £1942m, consisting of:

£1603m QR in HEFCE grant letter for 2010/11, given at (;

£213m in SHEFC Research Excellence Grant for 2010/11  given at££74m in HEFCW QR grant for 2009/10, given;

£52m QR funding for 2009/10 by Northern Ireland Department of Employment and Learning given at

[3] Figure supplied by “Create Change” See page 3 of

[4] See

[5] Figure supplied by “Create Change” See page 4 of

[6] Based on an analysis by Phil Sykes of figures and correspondence provided by Paul Harwood of JISC Collections. These are the costs charged by the publisher and do not include the additional effect on libraries of currency fluctuations.

[7] SCONUL statistics for 1998/99 show that the mean number of journal titles received in SCONUL libraries was 5017. The 1998/99 statistics do not indicate whether the journals received were in paper form, but the overwhelming majority will have been at that time. In the equivalent figures for 2008/9 the number of paper journal titles received was 2480. The number of paper titles publishers have to produce for the average SCONUL library had thus halved between 1999 and 2009, and has continued to reduce sharply since.

[8] “The value of IK HEIs contribution to the publishing process”. Report for JISC Collections by Hugh Look and Sue Sparks. See

[9] SCONUL Statistics for 2000/01 and 2008/9. Mean expenditure on books per RLUK member was £712,471 in 2000/01 and £713,694 in 2008/9; mean expenditure on journals was £1,433,053 in 2000/01 and £2,613,953 in 2008/9.

[10] See

[11] “How accessible is NHS-funded research to the general public and to the NHS’s own researchers?”. Submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology’s Inquiry into Scientific Publications 2004, see

[12] The figure of £192,469,174 given in footnote 1, uprated by 6% inflation in each year from 2011 to 2015 inclusive.

[13] The figure of £192,469,174 given in footnote 1, uprated by 9% inflation in each year from 2011 to 2015 inclusive.

[14] The inflation-adjusted figures for journal expenditure to 2015 given in footnotes 3 and 4 as a proportion of the total QR figure estimated in footnote 1

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