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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.

Wellcome Trust APC Data – Thank you!

- April 1, 2014 in Comment

The Wellcome Trust publicly raised concerns about the cost of so called ‘hybrid publishing’ last week as a direct result of the incredible work carried out by many in the Open Knowledge Foundation Open Access working group, and others in the wider community, enriching a data set of author processing charges released by the Wellcome Trust.

‘Hybrid publishing’ occurs when a journal contains articles which have been paid to be freely available online from the point of publication, while also containing articles which can only be accessed through personal or institutional subscription. To ensure academics can view all contents of such a journal, a university library must subscribe to that journal, resulting in publications supported by two funding streams; fees from authors *and* subscriptions.

There have long been concerns among many open access advocates about traditional journal publishers exploiting universities through this publishing model – but there has traditionally been a lack of openly available data. Funders and Universities have not released much data about the author charges, while libraries are subject to nondisclosure agreements stopping them discussing details of subscriptions.

The effort put in to developing the data set was incredible – and I wanted to publicly acknowledge some of those who put so much energy into it:

  • Theo Andrews – created the original google document, and came up with the idea of crowd-sourcing, as well as spending much time hunting for data.

  • Cameron Neylon – carried out an initial tidying up of the data, and helped promote the idea widely

  • Stuart Lawson – put in a super-human effort in data hunting

  • Emanuil Tolev – fixing DOIs, general technical thoughts

  • Alf Eaton – for flagging initial problems with DOIs, data hunting

  • Sam Smith – for helping finish the last load of hybrid/pure journal identification

  • Tom Pollard – who created a script to pull DOIs from PMCIDs
  • Daniel Mietchen

  • Rupert Gatti

  • Jenny Molloy

  • Nic Weber

  • Jackie Proven

  • Fiona Wright

  • Yvonne Budden

  • Dawn Pike

And of course – thank you to the Wellcome Trust, and Robert Kiley, for releasing such a valuable data set that enables much better understanding of the current state of open access publishing.

I’m sure I’ve missed some names out, and certainly many were anonymously adding data. If I’ve missed you out,  please do let me know as I’d love to ensure everyone is acknowledged for the effort put in.

The enriched Wellcome Trust data set is incredibly valuable. Not only has it enabled us to show the cost of hybrid publishing to the second biggest medical research charity in the world (which in turn indicates the potential costs to other research funders) it also provides a very useful precedent in terms of data release, provides a useful test bed for a number of tools that are currently being developed to automate much of this work, and enables exploration of the different licenses used by various publishers. I am sure many will continue to use this data set in the future.

The spreadsheet isn’t yet complete, but when it is, we’ll upload the data to Figshare.

Thank you to everyone who has helped with this work! And if you aren’t already, I’d urge you to sign up to the open access mailing list and join us for further discussions and activities around and towards open access.

Blogs that have come out of the data:
(if yours isn’t here, please email me)

The sheer scale of hybrid journal publishing

- March 24, 2014 in Comment

The last few years have seen a significant rise in what are termed ‘hybrid open access journals’, where only some of the articles are freely available to read and a subscription is still required to read the remainder. As many journals require payment from authors to publish in this fashion, then university libraries need to pay subscriptions to read the remaining articles, publishers are in effect being paid twice for the same work.

With recently published data from the Wellcome Trust, the scale of this double charging has become much more clear.

In Oct 2012 – Sept 2013, academics spent £3.88 million to publish articles in journals with immediate online access – of which £3.17 million (82 % of costs, 74 % of papers) was paying for publications that Universities would then be charged again for. For perspective, this is a figure slightly larger than the Wellcome Trust paid in 2012/2013 on their Society & Ethics portfolio.

Only £0.70 million of the charity’s £3.88m didn’t have any form of double charging (ie, was published in a “Pure Open Access” journal) – with this total being dominated by articles published in PLOS and BioMed Central journals (68 % of total ‘pure’ hybrid journal costs, 80 % of paper total).

Top 5 publishers by total cost to Wellcome Trust


No. of articles

Maximum Cost

Average Cost

Total Cost (nearest £1000)

Elsevier (inc. Cell Press)















Oxford University Press





Nature Publishing Group (not inc. Frontiers)






Top 5 publishers by total cost to Wellcome Trust – separated into money spent on author charges for articles appearing in hybrid and pure open access journals



Journal Type

No. of articles

Max Cost

Average Cost

 Total Cost (nearest £)







Pure OA











Pure OA











Pure OA





Oxford University Press






Pure OA





Nature Publishing Group






Pure OA






Wellcome Trust pays nearly £1 million to Elsevier, and pays over £500,000 to Wiley-Blackwell to make articles freely available on point of publication, in journals that a university library will also be trying to find money to also pay subscription fees to. These are outrageously high sums of money! Especially given a recent explosion in the number of journals, and an increase in journal prices, means even well-funded libraries can no longer afford the cost of subscribing to many journals!

Journal articles should be published in a way that means they are freely available – and not just to academics, but also to wider public audiences. And I’m not critical of article processing charges. However, I’m unsure how any publisher can justify charging an academic an average cost of £2,443 to publish in a journal that is already being supported by library subscriptions from not just one university, but many universities around the world. And surely no cost based model should charge more for publication in a hybrid journal with multiple funding streams than in one supported purely on author charges (as appears to be the case with Wiley-Blackwell).

If you want to know more and might want to help the Open Knowledge Foundation’s soon-to-be launched project on Open Access, please leave your email address in the below form.



Data source found here

Original data: Kiley, Robert (2014): Wellcome Trust APC spend 2012-13: data file. figshare

Enhancements on original data made by Cameron Neylon:

Knowledge Creation to Diffusion: The Conflict in India

- February 28, 2014 in Comment, Guest Post, Policy


This is a guest post by Ranjit Goswami, Dean (Academics) and (Officiating) Director of Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur, India. Ranjit also volunteer as one of the Indian Country Editors for the Open Data Census.

Developing nations, more so India, increasingly face a challenge in prioritizing its goals. One thing that increasingly becomes relevant in this context, in the present age of open knowledge, is the relevance of subscription-journals in dissipation and diffusion of knowledge in a developing society. Young Aaron Swartz from Harvard had made an effort to change it, that did cost him his life; most developed nations have realized research funded by tax-payers money should be made freely available to tax-payers, but awareness on these issues are at quite pathetic levels in India – both at policy level and among members of academic community.

Before one looks at the problem, a contextual understanding is needed. Today, a lot of research is done globally, including some of it in India, and its importance in transforming nations and society is increasingly getting its due recognition across nations. Quantum of original application oriented research, applicable specifically to the developing world, is a small part of overall global research. Some of it is done locally in India too, in spite of two obvious constraints developing nations face: (1) lack of funds, and (2) lack of capability and/or capacity.

Tax-funded research should be freely available

This article argues that research outcomes, done in India with Indian tax-payers money, are to be freely available to all Indians, for better diffusion. Unfortunately, the present practice is quite opposite.

The lack of diffusion of knowledge becomes evident in absence of any planned efforts, to make the research done in local context available in open platforms. Here when one looks at the academic community in India, due to the older mindset where research score and importance is given only for publishing research papers in journals, often even in journals of questionable quality, faculty members are encouraged to publish in subscription-journals. Open access journals are considered untouchables. Faculty members mostly do not keep a version of the publication to be freely accessible – be it in their own institute’s website, or in other formats online. More than 99% of Indian higher educational institutes do not have any open-access research content in their websites.

Simultaneously, a lot of academic scams get reported, more from India, as measuring research contribution is a difficult task. Faculty members often fall prey to short-cuts of institute’s research policy, in this age of mushrooming journals.

Facing academic challenges

India, in its journey to be an to an open knowledge society, faces diverse academic challenges. Experienced faculty members feel, that making their course outlines available in the public domain would lead to others copying from it; whereas younger faculty members see subscription journal publishing as the only way to build a CV. The common ill-founded perception is that top journals would not accept your paper if you make a version of it freely available. All of above act counter-productive to knowledge diffusion in a poor country like India. The Government of India has often talked about open course materials, but in most government funded higher educational institutes, one seldom sees even a course outline in public domain, let alone research output.
Question therefore is: For public funded universities and institutes, why should any Indian user have to cough up large sums of money again to access their research output? And it is an open truth that – barring a very few universities and institutes – most Indian colleges, universities and research organizations or even practitioners cannot afford the money required to pay for subscribing most well-known journal databases, or afford individual articles therein.


It would not be wrong to say that out of thirty-thousand plus higher educational institutes, not even one per cent has a library access comparable to institutes in developed nations. And academic research output, more in social science areas, need not be used only for academic purposes. Practitioners – farmers, practicing doctors, would-be entrepreneurs, professional managers and many others may benefit from access to this research, but unfortunately almost none of them would be ready or able to shell out $20+ for a few pages by viewing only the abstract, in a country where around 70% of people live below $2 a day income levels.

Ranking is given higher priority than societal benefit

Academic contribution in public domain through open and useful knowledge, therefore, is a neglected area in India. Although, over the last few years, we have seen OECD nations, including China, increasingly encouraging open-access publishing by academic community; in India – in its obsession with university ranks where most institutes fare poorly, we are on reverse gear. Director of one of India’s best institutes have suggested why such obsessions are ill-founded, but the perceptions to practices are quite opposite.

It is, therefore, not rare to see a researcher getting additional monetary rewards for publishing in top-category subscription journals, with no attempt whatsoever – be it from researcher, institute or policy-makers – to make a copy of that research available online, free of cost. Irony is, that additional reward money again comes from taxpayers.

Unfortunately, existing age-old policies to practices are appreciated by media and policy-makers alike, as the nation desperately wants to show to the world that the nation publishes in subscription journals. Point here is: nothing wrong with producing in journals, encourage it even more for top journals, but also make a copy freely available online to any of the billion-plus Indians who may need that paper.

Incentives to produce usable research

In case of India, more in its publicly funded academic to research institutes, we have neither been able to produce many top category subscription-journal papers, nor have we been able to make whatever research output we generate freely available online. On quality of management research, The Economist, in a recent article stated that faculty members worldwide ‘have too little incentive to produce usable research. Oceans of papers with little genuine insight are published in obscure periodicals that no manager would ever dream of reading.’ This perfectly fits in India too. It is high time we look at real impact of management and social science research, rather than the journal impact factors. Real impact is bigger when papers are openly accessible.

Developing and resource deficit nations like India, who need open access the most, thereby further lose out in present knowledge economy. It is time that Government and academic community recognizes the problem, and ensures locally done research is not merely published for academic referencing, but made available for use to any other researcher or practitioner in India, free of cost.

Knowledge creation is important. Equally important is diffusion of that knowledge. In India, efforts to resources have been deployed on knowledge creation, without integrative thinking on its diffusion. In the age of Internet and open access, this needs to change.


Prof. Ranjit Goswami is Dean (Academics) and (Officiating) Director of Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur – a leading private B-School in India. IMT also has campuses in Ghaziabad, Dubai and Hyderabad. He is on twitter @RanjiGoswami

Copyright and Open Access 2014

- January 15, 2014 in Comment

By Tom Olijhoek & Michelle Brook (Open Access Working Group/Open Knowledge Foundation)

This week has been proclaimed Copyright Week by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and today, Wednesday Jan 15, is Open Access Day 2014.

It is almost exactly 1 year ago that Aaron Swartz died in the middle of his struggle for open knowledge and it would be a good thing to make this week and in particular Open Access Day, a recurring event in his honor.

The open access movement has gained momentum in the past year and too much has happened to list every thing. One significant development was The White House issuing a directive stating that all publicly funded research should be made publicly available in repositories. The reaction of the scientific publishers has been to allow this, but under the condition that there is an embargo time of 6 months or 1 year. Many have thought that this would be a necessary transition measure, but recently they have been proven very wrong in this assumption because a powerful lobby of publishers is now even demanding for embargo times of up to 3 years!

In our opinion any embargo time for making publications open access is the wrong thing to do: it is not in the interest of science, not in the interest of society, it seems designed only to protect the rights of the publishers in order to maintain their profits. Any paper, especially in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths disciplines, refers to work done at least 1-2 years previously. Combined with the inherent fast pace of science, any embargo period – especially prolonged embargo periods – will make sharing of the information less useful and less efficient by prolonging this time span further. Instead we should strive for Zero-embargo publication and push for SHORTER review and handling times. At present these can be as long as 6 months or a year!

We should remember Open Access is not only about having information freely available to view. People should also be able to reuse the information freely with no restrictions other than the requirement to attribute. Instead of traditional copyright rules and property rights open access publishers increasingly use a set of licenses developed by Creative Commons. These licenses provide a basic choice of rules for the usage of the work, in combination with the stringent demand for attribution of the work to the original author(s). In this way copyright remains (forever) with the author while allowing for unrestricted (or in other cases somewhat restricted) use of the information.

The original copyright rules that evolved around 1700 (Statute of Anne) were developed to protect the right of the owner of a work for a limited time (2x 14 years) in exchange for having the work in the public domain after this time period. So in a sense these rules were aimed at allowing to share the information. Because information did not travel that fast in those days, this ‘embargo period’ was then considered enough. When through technical advancements information started to move more quickly the copyright period was gradually extended to 70 years and more (Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). However, in the process the copyright ownership had shifted from individual copyright to corporate copyright owned by publishing businesses. The ultimate goal of the copyright laws no longer reflected the ultimate goal of sharing information after a short period of time, but instead have a new role of defending business interests for as long as possible.

Today, thanks to the invention of the Internet, we see the making of a sharing economy. Many sharing communities exist already, but the community of sharing scientists is slow in coming. Although the internet was developed by scientists to exchange information the public has been much more quick in seeing and using the possibilities for sharing ideas, goods and information. Sharing of scientific information is still in its infancy, not in the least because of the ongoing efforts of traditional publishers to shield information for as long as this is profitable, but open science communities have started to form all over the world. This can be seen by the rapid growth of the Open Knowledge Foundation, with over 40 local open knowledge communities worldwide, many more than only two years ago. And it is also illustrated by the steady growth of older open access publishers like PLoS and BioMedCentral, as well as the very successful introductions of new journals like eLife, PeerJ and the Open Library of Humanities.

Political and scientific support is also growing. The next European research program Horizon2020 aims at 100 % open access for all publicly funded research. And scientific society are also involved – the Max Planck society has just organized its tenth anniversary Berlin conference on open access in Berlin.

However not only political and scientific support is important. We want to have citizens, students, entrepreneurs, and everyone else who needs (specific) information to push for global open access to all academic literature. And we need your help to do this.

  • You can contact the Open Knowledge Foundation by registering on the website
  • You can subscribe to any of the mailing lists of the OKF for instance the open access list and take part in discussions
  • You can share your stories on difficulties or success with accessing information on the website WhoNeedsAccess
  • You can download the OpenAccessButton and start registering where you hit paywalls when trying to access information