A million squid you say?

Note: I really tried to make this a fair and balanced piece regarding the true cost of scholarly communication. Instead it verges off into the rant. I’m not anti-publisher or anti-profit, we all have to eat and grow and I like living in a capitalist society. I just don’t like feeling like a mug every-time I report a problem with an academic publishers website knowing how much it costs, which is actually a big part of my day job

Twitter blew up a bit the other night with the revelation at a London event that UCL library spends over one million pounds sterling a year on titles from one single publisher alone, namely Elsevier. (Update: Video of the debate here. According to @markgfh UCL apparently confirmed the spend, first revealed by @david_colquhoun).

For some in library-land, the only revelation was that this is a revelation. The truth is that big packages like Elseviers’ Science Direct cost big money.

"To read your own papers you must pay ..."

A glance at the UCL Metalib portal reveals 144 listed ejournal publishers, so their total annual ejournal spend must be a lot higher. According to Wikipedia, UCL has a lot of academics, so its probably a high user:

“UCL has over 4,000 academic and research staff and 648 professors, the highest number of any British university.”

So sticking with Elsever, lets do some super basic maths:

1,000,000 / 4,000 = £250 per academic user per year!

Compared to the spend on academics themselves (average wage £43,486 a year in 2007-08, £69,870 for professors! source –THES)  this is possibly a marginal cost for the taxpayer and a necessary one. After all, universities need academics and academics need to read / get published in journals to advance their career and share knowledge … so honestly, why all the fuss?

Well, one million is still a big number (once upon a time, you could hold the world to ransom for a million dollars …), and given Elseviers’ focus on the sciences, the actual usage figure will be skewed somewhat to a proportion of the faculty. So this will grab attention, at least in the humanities.

The real problem to my eyes lies with the actual unit cost supposedly behind this, the ‘pay per view’, which makes accurate comparative modeling of the true cost of big package access really difficult.

Elsevier currently charge $31.50 (subject to change) per access for their own content, around £20. Assuming each UCL academic gets to view over 23 articles on Elsevier platforms a year, they allegedly get value for money from the big package. Many will probably soak this up looking at their own work and checking citations alone. For some downloading hundreds a month, its a total bargin. This is how Elsevier and other justify the cost of the big package.

So all is well and against this £20 a hit cost the big package is really good value for money as libraries can clear the shelves of dusty journals (I wish).

Or is it? Ask anyone who runs a website or online service in the non-academic world if they think that this is an accurate and fair cost. £20 per PDF download? A high price for a crummy format. Publishers comment on re-inventing interfaces and platforms to cope with demand. I still can’t see any remote justification for the cost in any of these for the online products offered. If Amazon had adopted this pricing model and technology for the Kindle, it would have been laughed out of town.

What relationship does this £20 per download unit cost bear to the actual operational cost? Very little I suspect, its smoke and mirrors. Many academics, who view articles using library subscription access will be unaware of it, but its there.

So I think Elsevier are overcharging and I think there is serious and unfair profit being made out of academic works. We are being held to ransom, with the academic career structure forcing academics into publishing to get recognition and librarians into buying.

Need more evidence? Check out the big package annual price hikes. Research Libraries UK  has had to fight year-on-year price increases of over 5% (well in advance of inflation) by going head to head with Elsevier. Academic support has been muted, but librarians are getting their hands dirty in some serious negotiation on their behalf.

For a better indication of the attitude, check out the Reed Elsevier financial reports on the web aimed at investors. You get a real idea of who their true target customer is.

Publishers will also use the cost of peer review to cover their tracks. With the move to online publishing, many academics now perform their own basic editorial work, including typsetting, formatting, proofing and more. And the vaunted peer-review system that underpins it it? All done by volunteers, increasingly swamped by the growth in review requests as the big package model produces more journals to bulk out the ‘value’. Surely the £500 submission fee can cover this?

It sounds terrible, but universities can seemingly afford to pay, at least in the UK. The true cost of closed access academic publishing is probably even harder to quantify when we consider the wider implications on those without access to a major University library online service. They have been dubbed the ‘scholarly poor’, those on the wrong side of the pay-wall who cannot access literature vital for personal and social development. Peter Murray-Rust and many others are increasingly vocal about this issue.

Today, there has been further movement against this big business profit racket and surprisingly, its from a Tory-led government:

The government has signaled a revolution in scientific publishing by throwing its weight behind the idea that all publicly funded scientific research must be published in open-access journals.

The policy is in the government document Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth published on Monday, which also includes plans for a series of cash prizes for teams to solve specific scientific challenges and a new £75m fund for small businesses to develop their ideas into commercial products.

The commitment to making publicly funded research free to access is a direct challenge to the business models of the big academic publishing companies, which are the gatekeepers for the majority of high-quality scientific research. Previous attempts by open access publishers to break this stranglehold over the dissemination of scientific results have largely failed.


Is this good news? Depends on the actual definition of Open Access, and what ‘free’ usage actually entails. There will still be a cost to academia, as most open access publishing requires a hefty fee up front.

Still, its a welcome start. If this stimulates the academic publishing market away from its leeching, then all the better.

Lets see some real innovation from publishers in response to this to justify the high cost of their service. Dropping PDF’s and allowing subscribers to have unrestricted text mining would be a start.

Offering a range of financial options beyond rip off pay per view and the murky ‘big deal’ is a must.


5 thoughts on “A million squid you say?

  1. Great post, Ed. Well said.

    It’s good to see UK academic libraries getting together to take a stand, if the money isn’t there then they won’t get a sale, and in the end they need the sale as much as we need access to the material. I would suggest that librarians should be generally much tougher negotiating with publishers. The tendency seems to be either to either avoid speaking to them or to pay up with (it seems) a bit of grumbling, neither of which approaches will make any difference. It’s about time real negotiation skills were taught as part of library courses/CPD.

    • Thanks Sarah. Given some of the dubious models being proposed for ebook sales (a sale only good for 26 ‘loans’ before it needs to be brought again) I think negotiating skills would be a vital part of the skillset, especially as Librarians often receive very little such support for ‘purchasing’ divisions in their institutions.

      In terms of ejournals think that negotiation at this level is best done by consortia and with professional support. Thanks to the JISC Collections work, this is increasingly the case for e-journals in the UK.

  2. Pingback: The cost of subscribing to academic journals | From the bottom of the heap

  3. Pingback: Journal mega-bundles & TheCostOfKnowledge - Metacladistics

  4. Pingback: Open Access discussed on the radio - Ross Mounce

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