Sharing the results of publicly funded research

The cost of academic publishing

April 24, 2014 in Comment

UPDATE 28 April 2014: Imperial have released their subscription data – £1,340,213. This takes the Russell Group to a total of £15.7 million in subscription fees to Elsevier alone with data related to four universities still outstanding.


What could the UK academic community do with £14.5 million? That is the same as the yearly tuition fees for over 1600 undergraduates paying £9,000 fees.

And that is what just 19 Universities in the UK are spending in total during a single year on journal subscriptions to a single publisher.


The act of publishing research has an intrinsic cost, and I don’t know anyone who claims otherwise. However, the key questions we as an academic community should be asking is how much this publishing process costs, and if we are receiving value for money.

But we can’t answer these questions. Because we don’t know how much academic publishing costs.

Historically, the costs of scientific research publication have been covered through subscriptions to academic journals in which the research has been published. Alternative business models are beginning to develop, but the majority of research around the world is still published in journals to which subscriptions are required.

Individual academics are largely protected from the costs of access to these journals. Libraries at universities are largely responsible for managing institution wide access to journals, and through JISC negotiate these subscription costs.

And then libraries are not allowed to tell anyone what these costs are. Libraries are placed under huge amounts of pressure not to release this data, and in the case of Elsevier, they are explicitly forbidden to by non-disclosure agreements in the contracts they have to sign.

Today, Tim Gowers has released data showing that 19 Russell Group Universities alone spend over £14.4 million (excluding VAT) on subscriptions to journals published by Elsevier alone. Without a doubt you should read his blog post which has far more detail and background; but the headline figures are:




















King’s College London




London School of Economics

Not released data






Not released data




Not released data

Queen Mary University of London

Not released data

Queen’s Universty Belfast












*Joined the Russell Group two years ago.
**Information obtained by Sean Williams.

Data taken from Tim Gowers blog post found here


This data, acquired through Freedom of Information requests, has focussed upon the Russell Group, but excludes data from Imperial College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, Nottingham, Oxford, and Queen Mary University of London who declined to release their data. And many of these of these are unlikely to be be small spenders. This means that the total figure for the Russell Group will be significantly higher than the £14.4 million stated above.

Non-disclosure clauses, included by Elsevier within the contracts have previously prevented libraries from releasing this data, and even from discussing the figures with other libraries or academics within their own University, and the release of this data is likely to cause much comment among libraries and academics.

There are large differences between different institutions – for instance Exeter is paying roughly a sixth of the costs being paid by University College London, with UCL spending £1,381,380 (that’s the yearly fees from 150 undergraduates). As Tim mentions in his in-depth analysis, it’s interesting to note that the institutions paying the lowest fees are those institutions who have only recently joined the Russell Group.

While a bound physical copy was the only means of communicating written research over a distance, and was a huge development in 1665 with the publication of the first scientific journal, the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’, the idea of journal subscriptions in return for access to academic research is understandable. There were large infrastructure costs involved.

However, the Internet has created opportunity for significantly reduced distribution costs. Distributing ‘copies’ of digital work costs very little once initial costs have been covered, and given that this is the way many academics access research within the University, there is no justifiable reason why publishers should charge such widely different access fees to universities.

Journal subscriptions are not the only cost to Universities for publishing research. As a transition towards open access is made, author processing charges (APCs) are common; especially in the UK where the Research Councils, Wellcome Trust and other funders have mandated that academics make their research freely and openly available at point of publication.

However, this APC data is also not available, which means we can’t see how much money is flowing to publishers. And is is especially important in the case of many high profile and prestigious journals which are what are termed ‘hybrid journals’. These are journals in which some articles are freely available to read after receipt of an APC, but a subscription is still required to read the remainder.

No data is currently made available that shows how much UK academics are paying to publish in an open access fashion, either in pure open access journals, or these ‘hybrid journals’. However, data released last month shows that in 2012-2013 alone, the Wellcome Trust alone spent over £1 million on articles published in Elsevier journals – of which nearly 95% was in journals to which an academic library had to also pay a subscription.

And yet this is only a small piece of the picture; we still don’t know how much is being spent on APCs by other public funded research streams such as from the Research Councils or HEFCE.

In a time of decreasing research funding from Government (given UK inflation rates the flat-line research budget results in a real terms cut), and increased onus on students as a source of income, what is an acceptable cost for publication of research? Be that cost met through journal subscriptions or an open access business model. And to whom should we be paying that money?

These conversations are rarely had; partly through lack of information, and partly through the disinterest of many academics. And traditional publishers such as Elsevier benefit significantly and exploit the disinterest of many academics in this space. They take work largely funded by the taxpayer, carried out within publicly funded institutions, and then sell it back to this institution, and every other willing/able institution around the world. And then actively work to prevent libraries from releasing information that may begin to establish a competitive market in this space.

To an advantage of many millions of pounds a year. Elsevier alone is charging £14.4 million to 19 universities in the UK – and will be gaining literally millions more from the other 100 universities in the country. They are also gaining millions of pounds in APCs.

And that’s just one publisher. There are countless other traditional publishers to whom academic libraries pay subscriptions; Wiley, Oxford University Press, Nature Publishing Group, and Springer just to name a few. And none of this data is out there. No-one knows how much money is being drained from the academic university budgets (either from research grants, or indirect money received through HEFCE grants or student tuition fees) to the financial benefit of these for-profit publishers.

We need to get a full picture of the costs of academic publishing – both the costs incurred through journal subscriptions and through APCs. While the focus of Tim’s work has been Elsevier, I’ve submitted Freedom of Information requests to Russell Group Universities asking for journal subscription data for Wiley, Oxford University Press and Springer, and I’ll be making this data available if/when it is released. I will also provide information where libraries do not honour their obligations under FOI, do not accept that this information is in the public interest, and what reasons are they give.

And it is without doubt in the public interest to have data that can show the cost of publication made openly available. Without this, there can be no development of competitive markets in either subscriptions or APCs. A chilling effect, created by commercial publishers and non-disclosure clauses, requiring a lack of transparency cannot serve anything other than other than the business interests of traditional publishers.

24 responses to “The cost of academic publishing”

  1. Richard Van Noorden says:

    You conclude: ‘We need to get a full picture of the costs of academic publishing – both the costs incurred through journal subscriptions and through APCs.”

    It’s worth adding that the Finch report did provide some numbers on this: a 2010 estimate that universities spend £112 million on subscription fees, and £175 million overall on access to academic journals (including author-side payments at that time).

    The same report estimated that ‘other institutions’ spent £75 million on subscription fees, part of a total of £122 million on access provision to academic journals.

    There was nothing transparent about those estimates, and the picture could look very different now, so a detailed breakdown is really valuable.

    But we do already have a ballpark idea: we already knew that university libraries in the UK collectively spent well in excess of £100 million in 2010, and we can guess that they probably spend closer to £150 million by now, on subscription fees.

  2. Anna Wagstaff says:

    The issue of value for money is key here. It’s something members of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) who work in academic publishing have been raising for some time, as we’ve watched academic publishers progressively pull back from their traditional role of providing editorial services. Academic publishers add value to the extent that they facilitate and promote global communication of academic research and discourse. Yet, with the exception of a handful of flagship journals, companies like Elsevier now expect any language editing to be paid for by authors themselves if it is to be done at all. The result is that a significant proportion of the articles for which libraries pay such high prices contain important flaws and/or require several attempts at reading to work out what the author is trying to say. Interested lay readers, academics from different disciplines, and people with less than fluent English may struggle to make any sense of it at all. This is not just a question of whether publicly funded university libraries should be paying such high prices to generate BMW-sized profits for academic publishers. There is also the question of the value for money we get from publicly funded research, when the companies responsible for communicating the findings of that research seem to consider investing in the quality of communication as an unnecessary expenditure.

  3. […] Sharing the results of publicly funded research (WOW 'The cost of academic publishing' by @MLBrook #elsevier)  […]

  4. […] This post appeared originally on April 24, 2014 at the blog of the Open Access Group, here. […]

  5. Thank you for this post, Michelle. It’s been reblogged at The Comics Grid’s blog, here. The joy of CC-BY!

  6. […] Sharing the results of publicly funded research  […]

  7. Pre-Green “Fool’s Gold” Versus Post-Green “Fair Gold”

    The only effective way to make inflated subscriptions unsustainable is for funders and institutions to mandate Green OA self-archiving.

    Tim Gowers is quite right that “ the pace of change is slow, and the alternative system that is most strongly promoted — open access articles paid for by article processing charges [“Gold OA”] — is one that mathematicians tend to find unpalatable. (And not only mathematicians: they are extremely unpopular in the humanities.)… there is no sign that they will help to bring down costs any time soon and no convincing market mechanism by which one might expect them to.”

    This is all true as long as the other form of OA (“Green OA” self-archiving by authors of published articles in OA repsositories, mandated by funders and institutions) has not prevailed.

    The current Finch/RCUK policy, preferring Gold OA, has had its predictable perverse effects:

    1. sustaining arbitrary, bloated Gold OA fees
    2. wasting scarce research funds
    3. double-paying publishers [subscriptions plus Gold]
    4. handing subscription publishers a hybrid-gold-mine
    5. enabling hybrid publishers to double-dip
    6. abrogating authors’ freedom of journal-choice [based on cost-recovery model, embargo or licence instead of on quality]
    7. imposing re-mix licenses that many authors don’t want and most users and fields don’t need
    8. inspiring subscription publishers to adopt and lengthen Green OA embargoes [to maxmize hybrid-gold revenues]
    9. handicapping Green OA mandates worldwide [by incentivizing embargoes]
    10. allowing journal-fleet publishers to confuse and exploit institutions and authors even more

    But the solution is also there (as already adopted by University of Liege and FRS-FNRS (the Belgian Francophone research funding council), EC Horizon2020 proposed and now adopted by HEFCE for REF2020.

    a. funders and institutions mandate immediate-deposit
    b. of the peer-reviewed final draft
    c. in the author’s institutional repository
    d. immediately upon acceptance for publication
    e. whether journal is subscription or Gold
    f. whether access to the deposit is immedate-OA or embargoed
    g. whether license is transfered, retained or CC-BY;
    h. institutions implement repository’s facilitated email eprint request Button;
    i. institutions designate immediate-deposit the mechanism for submitting publications for research performance assessment;
    j. institutions monitor and ensure immediate-deposit mandate compliance

    This policy restores author choice, moots publisher embargoes, makes Gold and CC-BY completely optional, provides the incentive for author compliance and the natural institutional mechanism for verifying it, consolidates funder and institutional mandates; hastens the natural death of OA embargoes, the onset of universal Green OA, and the resultant institutional subscription cancellations, journal downsizing and transition to Fair-Gold OA at an affordable, sustainable price, paid out of institutional subscription cancellation savings instead of over-priced, double-paid, double-dipped Fool’s-Gold. And of course Fair-Gold OA will license all the re-use rights users need and authors want to allow.

    In summary, plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Gold OA today are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate Green OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

    Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age. L’Harmattan. 99-106.

    ________ (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).

    ________ (2013) Comments on HEFCE/REF Open Access Mandate Proposal. Open access and submissions to the REF post-2014

    ________ (2013) Finch Group reviews progress in implementing open access transition amid ongoing criticisms. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog November 18th 2013

    ________ (2013) “Nudging” researchers toward Gold Open Access will delay the shift to wider access of research. LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog December 5th, 2013

  8. […] Brook at the Open Knowledge Foundation also provides some context for where Gowers’s obtained information fits and what more […]

  9. […] themselves. We’ve just learned that twenty of the UK’s top research universities spend £15.7 million annually on their Elsevier journals alone. Fields-Medal-winner-cum-OA-champion Tim Gowers has further […]

  10. […] at Quantumplations and works with Open Knowledge Foundation where she has recently published a blog about the cost of academic publishing. You can also find her on Twitter […]

  11. […] already represents today to Universities. This was recently highlighted in an interesting blog post by OKFN’s open access working group, which refers to a blog post by Tim Gowers, who released […]

  12. […] million… what just 19 Universities are spending during one year on journal subscriptions to a single […]

  13. […]  In addition to the recent PLOS Opens post about this, see also comments from Peter Murray Rust, Michelle Brook and Research Libraries UK (Phil Sykes and David Prosser). Required […]

  14. […] Elsevier (heard through @McDawg and others). He details this in a very long blog post, which was well summarised by Michelle Brook (@MLBrook) of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Gowers has attempted to get data on […]

  15. […] APCs for the last years. Much has been written and discussed on the topic (a small selection: here here and here) and I am not going to repeat it here. In a nutshell, what emerged is a […]

  16. […] Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers sent out a series of FoI requests to find out what UK libraries are spending on Elsevier. His comprehensive blog on his findings notes “A striking aspect of these amounts is just how much they vary.” This has sparked considerable discussion, not least “The cost of academic publishing”. […]

  17. […] UPDATE 28 April 2014: Imperial have released their subscription data – £1,340,213. This takes the Russell Group to a total of £15.7 million in subscription fees to Elsevier alone with data related to four universities still outstanding. What could the UK academic community do with £14.5 million? That is the same as the yearly tuition fees for over 1600 undergraduates paying £9,000 fees.And that is what just 19 Universities in the UK are spending in total during a single year on journal subscriptions to a single publisher.- See more at:  […]

  18. […] What could the UK academic community do with £14.5 million? That is the same as the yearly tuition fees for over 1600 undergraduates paying £9,000 fees.  […]

  19. […] power to the publishers to secure advantageous deals (and there was no transparency until some data were released thanks to freedom of information […]

  20. […] Most readers are aware that under the current publishing market model, the only organisations profiting from publishing scientific research are large corporations or predatory independent publishers that charge high rates to authors for Article Processing Charges (APCs) and/or that charge libraries high subscription fees to provide digital (not printed) access to articles, in order to make them somehow available to the readers (see the cost of academic publishing). […]

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