Corporate press releases announcing mergers and acquisitions inevitably tend to be written in a similar style. There is a breathy air of excitement as if the reader is expected to rejoice that Company A has bought a 51% stake in Company B or that Smith and Jones is merging with Jones and Smith.
So it was with the announcement that Holtzbrink and BC Partners plan a merger of Springer Science+Business and Macmillan Science and Education. We were told that ‘The combination is a big and exciting step into the future and a clear opportunity for all – for our customers…’. Well, academic libraries are customers and it is hard for us to get excited by further consolidation amongst the largest publishers of academic journals.
Back in 2002 the UK’s Office of Fair Trading published a report on The market for scientific, technical and medical journals. As part of their analysis, they looked at the largest publishers (in terms of ISI-rated STM journals). In the 12 years since the report the 15 largest publishers have collapsed to 9 – Elsevier bought Harcourt, Wolters Kluwer and Bertelsmann merged and the resultant Springer is planning to merge with Holtzbrink, Wiley bought Blackwells, and Taylor & Francis purchased both Gordon & Breach and Marcel Dekker. And these are just the mergers within the top 15 – many other smaller publishers and individual journals have been hoovered-up over the years.
Does it matter? Consolidation can certainly bring benefits – redundancies in processes can be removed, scale-advantages exploited, overheads reduced. But are these benefits actually big opportunities for customers, as the press release suggests? In 2001, economist Mark McCabe studied the effect of mergers on prices and concluded that there was a clear up-lift in prices post merger – even over and above the traditional inflation-busting price increases associated with journals. In the case of Elsevier’s purchase of Pergamon, McCabe found massive price rises for the post-purchase Pergamon titles.
There is little reason to hope that this merger will buck that trend.
An interesting strategic decision for the new company will be whether to keep the Nature brand completely separate or to include these titles as part of the Springer Big Deal. While there are obvious benefits to keeping Nature as a separate identifier of quality to authors and readers, I find it hard to believe that these titles won’t be included as a compulsory part of the Springer Big Deal – so making a ‘must have’ package even harder for libraries to cancel or to dismantle, allowing for greater price rises.
Another area of concern is in open access. A long-term hope of many OA advocates is that competition will help to moderate prices for Article Processing Charges (APCs). While there is some evidence that this is happening, it is also clear that the APC market is deeply dysfunctional – with APCs for OA in hybrid journals being significantly higher that those for pure OA journals from born-digital publishers. Springer and Macmillan offer both pure and hybrid titles at a range of APCs, but further consolidation in the market will limit competition. In fact, the new merged entity would, based on 2013 figures complied by Stephen Pinfield at Sheffield University, be the third largest publisher in terms of number of Gold OA papers – behind Elsevier and Wiley.
So we hope we can be forgiven if we fail to share the breathless enthusiasm of the press release. Until we have more evidence of how this will provide us with clear opportunities as promised, we will assume that the merger will follow the existing trend of extracting ever-increasing sums from academic libraries. The 2002 Office of Fair Trading report concluded that ‘We believe that there is evidence that the market for STM journals may not be working well.’ From the point-of-view of customers, this proposed merger is another indicator of market failure and we call on the relevant authorities to look both at the specifics of this merger and at the wider market.
David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK