I have access to almost all the journal article I need at my desk.  What’s the problem?

Access to research journals has improved dramatically over the past 10 years with the move to electronic delivery.  Libraries now purchase access to the complete corpus from the bigger publishers, in ‘big deals’.  In the case of the largest, Elsevier, this is almost 2000 titles.

However, these deals are expensive – in some cases UK libraries are paying well over £1,000,000 per year for access to a single publisher’s journals.  Added to this cost has been the price rises over the past few years.  These have consistently outstripped inflation over the past decade and have been exacerbated by currency fluctuations.  Many publisher packages are priced in euros and dollars and some rises have increased by over  50% in the past four years.

But isn’t the cost per download falling?

It is certainly true that the cost per download of electronic papers has fallen over the past few years.  Electronic journals attract a huge amount of interest and are widely used.  Of course, it would be expected that the cost per download should fall – digital publishing technology is becoming more efficient, with dissemination costs reduced to almost zero.  The main costs of scholarly publishing are the time taken to write papers and then provide peer-review – both of which are donated gratis by the academic community.  It would be a sign of a hugely inefficient industry if costs per downloaded were not falling.

Unfortunately however, the only way to get the cheapest costs per download is to take the big deals.  The per serving price of these all-you-can-eat options may be affordable, but the total price certainly is not.

Isn’t this just a library budget problem?

The vast increases in prices, outpacing budgets and inflation, obviously have implications for library budgets.  But the consequences are broader.  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.  With cuts across the whole of Higher Education libraries will no longer be able to afford all of the big deals they currently take unless prices are moderated.  This will result in access to fewer titles at the researcher’s desk and increased frustration as papers of interest can no longer be read, ultimately undermining the strength of research and teaching in the UK.

Is this just a journals problem?

Over the past decade libraries have allocated an increasing proportion of their budgets to electronic journal access in general and ‘big deals’ from large publishers in particular.  This has had deleterious effects on other areas of collections.  Journals from smaller, often society publishers, have been squeezed as they are not part of the deals.  Also, spending on scholarly monographs and textbooks have suffered as more of the budget goes to a small number of very large publishers.  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%

What do the publishers suggest?

Publishers believe that the main problem is not inflation-busting price rises, but a failure of library budgets to increase in line with costs of research.  However, research is becoming more expensive to perform and we would not expect the cost of publishing to increase at the same levels, especially as many of the costs of online publishing are falling.

An alternative solution has been put forward by Graham Taylor from the Publisher’s Association: “The only way for universities to save money is to make people redundant.”

What can be done?

Achieving price restraint in the journals market is difficult.  Journal subscriptions are seen as ‘must have’ for a modern research-intensive university and researchers are not willing to accept a lack of access.  University administrators fear that lack of access will compromise research activity.  This has resulted in libraries struggling to meet the costs of journals by a variety of means, for example, shifting spending from other types of content.  There is no pressure on publishers to rein-in price rises as they know libraries will strive to purchase at whatever the cost.

A reduction in prices will only come about if libraries can go into negotiations with publishers knowing they have the support of academics and university administrators.  RLUK is looking for support from the community to take a strong negotiating position in forthcoming renewals for two of the largest big deals, with a view to reducing prices.  All parts of Higher Education are looking at cuts – it is not unreasonable to expect that publishers should share some of these cuts

Why not just cancel the big deals and buy individual journal titles?

One option would be to cancel big deals and return to a title-by-title selection.  This would not result in much of a saving – publishers price each title at an arbitrary ‘list price’ such that the total price for all the titles a large research library would need is greater than the big deal price.

Has anything similar been tried elsewhere?

A number of library consortia worldwide have achieved better deals on journal prices by acting in a coordinated way, with the full support of researcher and administrators.  For example, the University of California recently felt that the Nature Publishing Group was imposing unreasonable price rises.  A threat by the entire UC system to refuse to submit papers to the Nature Group journals, withdraw peer-review services, and stop subscriptions brought the Nature Publishing Group to the negotiation table.

The academic community has the power to positively influence prices when it acts in a coordinated manner.

What happens if an agreement can’t be reached?

If an agreement on the pricing of big deals with the largest publishers cannot be reach then libraries will attempt to meet the information needs of researchers and students by a variety of other means – such as inter-library loans.  There is no doubt that this will not be as efficient as desk-top access.  But ever-increasing prices mean that libraries will no longer be able to afford all of the big deals they currently take – so for many titles desk-top access will disappear unless price restraint is shown.

The gains in access to the journal literature that have been achieved over the past decade are now under threat and can only be safeguarded if the largest publishers recognize the massive financial restraints that Higher Education is under, review their pricing structures and put into reverse their inflation-busting price rises.

[1] SCONUL Statistics 2008/9. Figure uprated to reflect an estimated two subsequent years of inflation at 6%.