The best universities are paying too much for dozens of academic journals provided by major publishing houses, according to a survey.
Even with the hefty discounts universities get when they subscribe to journal bundles, commercial publishers offer lower value for money than journals published by leading professional nonprofits, the study finds. . Analysis by a team of economists found that for large universities, journals published by nonprofits had a value two to ten times greater than those published by commercial companies, such as Elsevier, Springer , Sage and Taylor & Francis.
“The price-performance ratio universities get from commercial publishers is typically considerably less than what they get from nonprofit publishers,” said Paul Courant, study author and professor of economics and information. at the University of Michigan. “Nonprofits on average offer much better value for money, especially for large universities, that’s clear,” he added.
Many journal publishers require universities to sign confidentiality agreements that prohibit them from saying how much they paid for journal subscriptions. Elsevier maintains that confidentiality agreements allow them to tailor their prices to individual subscribers, although David Tempest, deputy director of the publisher, said at a meeting in Oxford last year that they were preventing customers from lower prices.
Economists have exploited the fact that US freedom of information law trumps government procurement secrecy agreements in most US states. They submitted requests to 55 university libraries and 12 library consortia for copies of their publisher contracts. They won 360 contracts that shed new light on the prices universities pay for academic journals.
Based on the contracts they gathered, economists calculated the average prices that publishers charge different types of institutions. The top universities, where most research is done, each paid an average of over $ 1.1 million to access Elsevier journals. The highest price charged by a nonprofit publisher, the American Chemical Society (ACS), was £ 62,743. The numbers cannot be compared because Elsevier publishes many more journals than ACS.
For a fair comparison between commercial and nonprofit publishers, economists looked at value for money. A measure of the quality of a journal is the number of citations it obtains in academic literature. Economists have used it to calculate the cost per citation for each journal, which reflects the journal’s value to academics.
Among commercial publishers, Elsevier’s “price per citation” was nearly three times that charged by nonprofit publishers. Other commercial publishers, namely Emerald, Sage, and Taylor & Francis, had prices per citation roughly ten times higher than nonprofits.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, economists reveal that some universities have saved fortunes by negotiating hard with commercial publishers. The University of California fought for a deal that meant their Elsevier journal subscriptions grew only 1.5% per year from 2003 to 2013. If they had accepted Elsevier’s demands for an increase 5% annual subscription, their annual subscription would have been close to $ 13 million, instead of the $ 9.3 million they agreed to pay in 2013.
“Some institutions were able to negotiate lower prices, while others may not have known that better deals could be made. This variation may explain the publishers’ desire to keep the terms of contracts confidential,” they write. In 2011, the journal publishing divisions of Elsevier, Springer and Wiley reported profits of 36%, 33.9% and 42% respectively of their sales.
Timothy Gowers, mathematician at the University of Cambridge, who called on researchers to boycott Elsevier, said: “One of the main reasons universities have accepted price increases for far superior academic journals for many years is to inflation were subject to confidentiality clauses. The data made public by Bergstrom et al are therefore extraordinarily welcome. They demonstrate in detail how the big commercial publishers have exploited their monopoly position, information which I hope will lead to many more libraries canceling their Big Negotiate contracts. “