Elsevier and other academic publishers still gouging libraries

June 29, 2014 • 8:43 am

An article by Ian Sample in the June 17 Guardian summarizes a paper by Theodore Bergstrom et al.published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (reference and abstract below) about how academic publishers price their electronic journals when selling access to libraries (and hence members of a subscribing university).

Although many for-profit academic publishers keep the prices of their library contracts secret (they do this so they can charge different prices to different universities), state universities are required by law to divulge this information under the Freedom of Information Act. Using that , Bergstrom et al. wrote to 55 university libraries and 12 library consortia (e.g., the University of California system) to find out how much they paid for their journals (often sold as “bundles: groups of journals published by a single academic publisher).  They got information for 360 contracts. The the results are disturbing, especially with regard to private publishers like Elsevier versus nonprofit publishers like Oxford University Press. They also divided universities into three classes:

  • Class 1: “Research extensive” universities that are highly devoted to research and award many Ph.D.s
  • Class 2: “Research intensive” universities that award Ph.D. but are not devoted as much to research
  • Class 3: “Master’s” institutions that award at least 50 master’s degrees but fewer than 20 Ph.D.s per year

They also got prices for six for-profit publishers of academic journals: For-profit publishers:






Taylor & Francis

The nonprofit publishers included Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, the American Chemical society, and a whole group of publishers (U.S. National Academy of Sciences, etc.) listed in the second table below. To make things equitable, the authors did legwork calculating how many times each firm’s journals were cited, so that the price of an electronic bundle for a library sold by a publisher like Springer or OUP can be expressed as “dollars charged per times articles in their journal was cited”. This gives an idea of how much “bang for the buck” university libraries pay when they buy a contract. In other words, that’s how much they pay for the scientific value of the journals, as measured by the impact those journals make on the field. First, here are Bergstrom et al.’s mean prices (most of these are negotiated for profit-making journals) for “bundles” of the press’s journals. Bundle sizes vary from just a few of the publisher’s journals to the entire catalogue. This is the mean price across all bundles bought, not weighted by citation:

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 6.52.57 AMYou can see two things from the above: contracts, especially for for-profits, are extraordinarily expensive. You pay over a million bucks for a year’s access to an average Elsevier bundle if you’re a top-flight research university. Prices are much less for less research-intensive schools, but still appreciable. Remember that university libraries have to buy many of these bundles, so you see why tuition costs are rising (journal bundle prices go up 5-10% per year for the profitmaking firms). You can also see that, with the exception of Emerald (whose bundles may be small; I don’t know), the nonprofit publishers charge much less: $62,743 max for the American Chemical Society bundles for a top-flight university. Now let’s look at the important figure for a bundle-buying university: the per citation cost. First I’ll give Bergstrom’s table for NONPROFIT publishers.

These are divided into three types of bundles: those for which the individual library negotiates a bundle price (“negotiated pricing”), those publishers that simply price journals by the size and nature of a university (“tiered pricing”: set prices, no negotiation), and those journals that charge every university the same for a bundle of journals (“uniform pricing”). Again, this is the “scientific bang per buck” cost of buying a bundle. For the nonprofits, the library pays usually less than a dollar for each article cited in a bundle (Cambridge University Press is an exception, though my own university’s press and the American Psychological Association are higher. Overall, there’s not much of a price differential among the three types of universities.

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 6.53.15 AMHere are the figures for for-profit publishers. Look at the difference!

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 6.54.01 AMThe mean prices are higher except for master’s universities:  I calculate $5.93 for the research-extensive universities, $2.10 for the research intensive universities, and only $ 0.94 for the master’s universities. The most research-oriented universities pay over three times the money per citation from for-profit publishers than from nonprofit publishers. And of course those are the universities that buy most of the bundles, because they require access.

The prices for research-extensive universities are ludicrous, for production costs are nowhere near that different for profits and nonprofits (I expect publishers’ representatives to issue statements explaining why they must charge so much!) It’s pure profit. And we know this because the article also reports the profits for Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley which were, respectively, 36%, 33.9%, and 42% of total sales revenue. (Nonprofits, of course, make 0% profit.) That is a huge profit for any type of organization. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer and Taylor & Francis are simply gouging their library customers, and that’s why they keep bundle prices secret. As the article reveals (judicious inquiry will yield you a copy), universities can bargain for bundles, but since the universities contracts with many for-profit publishers specify that all prices are secret (imagine if you couldn’t tell your neighbor what you paid for a car!), nobody knows how to bargain. It’s a monopoly! Ian Sample sums up this gouging in the Guardian:

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the economists reveal that some universities have saved fortunes by bargaining hard with commercial publishers. The University of California fought for a deal that meant their subscriptions to Elsevier journals rose only 1.5% per year from 2003 to 2013. Had they accepted Elsevier’s requests for an annual increase of 5%, their annual subscription would have been nearly $13m, instead of the $9.3m they agreed to pay in 2013.

Some institutions have been quite successful in bargaining for lower prices, whereas others may not have been aware that better bargains can be reached. Perhaps this variation explains publishers’ desires to keep contract terms 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 revenues.

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, who has called for researchers to boycott Elsevier, said: “One of the main reasons that universities have for many years accepted price increases for academic journals that are way above inflation is that their contracts have been subject to confidentiality clauses. The data made public by Bergstrom et al are therefore extraordinarily welcome. They demonstrate in detail the way that the major commercial publishers have been exploiting their monopoly position, information that I hope will lead to many more libraries cancelling their Big Deal contracts.”

I have previously asked my fellow academics to consider boycotting Elsevier, a notorious gouger. There is a petition to do so, and it’s been signed by 14,680 researchers.  You can sign the “The cost of knowledge” petition, signed by 14,680 researchers as of yesterday, by filling in the form shown in the screenshot below (just click on the shot, or the links above to go to the page). Those researchers include me, Jonathan and Michael Eisen, and physicist Sean Carroll (I haven’t done an extensive search).  And since I signed it over a year ago, I have neither published, refereed, or done any editorial work for Elsevier journals. If you’re a researcher, consider adding your name to it, or passing around the link. It’s time for publishers to stop gouging researchers (and their government grants, funded by the taxpayers) to make obscene profits! Even if you’re not a scientist, you’re paying money into the pockets of these greedy for-profit publishers. It’s obscene.

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 6.11.51 AM___________________

Reference: Bergstrom, T. C., P. N. Courant, R. P. McAfee, and M. A. Williams. 2014. Evaluating big deal journal bundles. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, early edition, ww.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1403006111

32 thoughts on “Elsevier and other academic publishers still gouging libraries

  1. At the risk of sounding like a Canuckistanian communist, these journals should all be not-for-profit. It’s obscene to me that universities should pay such high prices.

    1. At the risk of sounding like a Canuckistan economist, let me ask if a PhD from one of these level 1 schools is not more valuable and remunerative to the recipent than the other degrees awarded from all the schools here. I bet it is. (You are objecting to making the rich pay more.) If a citation earns me more than the same citation would earn you, simply because we attend different schools, why is it objectionable you pay more for it?

      1. I think all journals should charge enough to pay for their employees and whatever other costs but I don’t think they should be making profit. This is how I feel about education. BTW I also think that all schools should be public and access to them should be based on merit not finances.

        1. I think “all schools” is a bit draconian, because that would require a ban on private universities. I don’t want that, I just want a very effective ‘public option.’

          Certainly many of US states could do better at supporting their state university systems. So that they are both expanded to allow for more students, and more affordable per student.

      2. The citation isn’t earning you any more; your professors and the amount of publications your school puts out are earning you more.

        I suppose you can take a very expansionist approach to indirect influences like this, and say they all contribute somewhat. But then you’ll get to the ridiculous position that it would be perfectly legal for the city to charge Harvard more for water, gas, and electricity, because hey, think of all the money those students will earn when they get out.

    2. The odd thing is that a colleague of mine from the CAP conferences pointed out to me that a lot of American scholarly publishers are in the nonprofit category and a lot of the continental European ones are for-profit. Odd, given the usual pattern.

      That said, I agree, the prices are outrageous, and the bundling deals are crazy. I understand that “opting out” is difficult, at best.

      (Any academic librarians around?)

  2. I know before I graduated not too long ago, I was paying ~$125/semester as a library fee to pay for access to journals as part of the tuition. So the costs were pushed downstream.

  3. I wonder how much university computer infrastructure funding was approved 20-some years ago based on the argument that the servers and fiber optic etc. would pay for themselves because the newfangled electronic/digital journals would be much less expensive than the dead-tree variety.

    1. Libraries were experiencing a space crunch with the prolific publication rate of journals, so they have saved money by not having to build new buildings or wings or storage areas. It’s impossible to say if that offsets the costs, though.

  4. Dear Jerry, can I suggest that a boycott of Elsevier is only part of the solution?

    A more complete solution would be for all researchers to pledge to put versions of their papers on open-access repositories either by the time of acceptance or, say, within 6 months, and to boycott any publisher that won’t accept this.

    Many fields (e.g. physics and astrophysics) have already gone this route and putting things on arXiv on acceptance is now routine. I gather there are now such things is biology also.

    Scientists have the power to control this. They just have to use it and make their work open, rather than hiding it away behind the paywalls of for-profit publishers.

  5. I have never fully understood how this situation could develop to such an extreme abuse of taxpayer generated product. Here we have research that was, for the most part, funded by government grants, conducted for the most part at government subsidized public universities, and the principle investigators and students doing the research are also salaried through the government. All paid for by taxpayers. And yet the ‘product’ of this research is handed over to for-profit publishers who set the price with nary a quibble from representatives of the government. When put that way, then… WTF?

      1. Publications cost money. I see no problem with the task of publication being given to a private operation, and for that operation to earn a profit. And lets be honest, scientific journals are not exactly best sellers at Barnes and Noble. So one should understand that a subscription price might be high. Also, subscription prices for university libraries should be higher than the cost of personal subscriptions b/c they provide open access to a local population. But we are seeing that there are exorbitant profit margins, and that is indeed obscene.

  6. I wonder if there is any difference in page publication charges between the for-profit and not-for-profit publishers. I know I have two articles in Wiley journals and did not have to pay any page charges. I also have two articles in not-for-profit journals published by professional societies, and had to pay page charges.

    I also wonder if universities could pay less simply by purchasing on a per-article basis for their researchers as needed. Articles are often available for $30 per. If the cost of a year’s access to an Elsevier bundle is on average $1.16 million for a tier 1 research school, that would cover nearly 39,000 journal article downloads.

    1. I would expect that at most large research universities, the grad students are downloading a lot more than that. Consider that to reach 40k per year you’d need about 400 grad students downloading 100 articles each, per year. My department probably did that; the download numbers for the University might have been 5x or 10x that.

      Now granted, most of those downloads probably consist of the grad student scanning an article for 5 mins, figuring out it dosen’t contain the information he/she needs, and then deleting it. But nevertheless, they don’t know that until they do the download, which is why there is enormous pressure on major universities to access pretty much every journal they can.

  7. While there is nothing wrong with making profit, but this is just not acceptable.
    This new data will hopefully help universities with the contracts.

  8. Not just libraries, but individuals, too. The last article I downloaded from Springer cost me a mere 39 USD.

    1. Seriously? You paid Springer $38? If I need a paper published in some obscure journal that my university doesn’t subscribe to, I drop the corresponding author an email with a request for a copy. Nearly always get a positive answer within a few hours.

    2. Try to find it in other places. Many researchers are usually happy to give their articles if you ask nicely.

    3. Yes we have this problem at my workplace too. We are not a university but we do academic work; the subcription prices the big for-profit publishers would charge us are so out of our budget range that we must simply do without.

  9. Capitalism, coupled with our incredible technology, used to be a pretty good system for insuring that goods and services would be readily available to all at a reasonable price: those who charged too much for a product that another company could make cheaper soon went under, in an economic “survival of the fittest”, where the most efficient survived. Also, when a new product came onto the market, it was a “given” that the price would fall as time went by. Not so anymore: sheer greed has grown and imbedded itself into the corporate consciousness to the extent that most companies producing ANY kind of “product” probably spend as much in trying to figure out just how to keep profits high, or make them higher, as on their advertising budgets and every tool available to them is used for this purpose. The old directive used to be, “I wanna get rich”- the new one is, “I wanna get rich- overnight.”

    If you want to see obscene profits, take a quick look (it doesn’t take very long) at the health-care industry in this country: it’s no wonder our health care is the most expensive in the developed world; they basically make up the prices as they go along!

  10. In the near future it will continue to get better. Online interactions make it much easier to get articles without paying.

    I am part of an organization that subscribes to basically every journal known to god, and yet when I am at home I do not fall under the umbrella of those subscriptions yet I can find nearly every article I want or at least get a trail to knowledge which is essentially redundant. I have verified this many times as I have been stuck at home on several occasions and can double check my progress at work only to find I basically found all that I needed to know for free.

    In any case, isn’t it well known that that most people don’t always read the papers they cite….just an aside.

    1. You must be a great detective to be able to follow a trail to a free copy of articles that you personally desire Kevin. And how much time must you waste in finding such a trail? I have a keen interest in Evolution (why I haunt WEIT) and in particular evolutionary game theory/ evolutionary mathematics. When I become intrigued by a particular subtopic I’m pretty determined to track the concepts to original articles rather than read more superficial “books for the layman”. It is a very costly exercise. Example: following the controversy over Hamiltons Rule must have cost me at least $200. How can science itself develop an enlightened and engaged following when such obscenely expensive hurdles are thrown in that path?

      1. It doesn’t take much time at all to Google an author and check for the desired papers on their websites (many authors ignore the publishers’ copyrights and have online pdfs of their papers). If that doesn’t work, email them. Maybe 5 minutes max per paper.

        1. In many fields (including evolutionary theory, and particularly morphology-based systematics and palaeontology) a lot of the papers one needs are archival, and the authors likely retired if not long-dead. Some publishers make their archives open-access but only within a certain range (e.g. 1-10 years), some researchers and teachers scan useful old papers and post them after (or before) copyright has expired, and many authors self-archive. Certainly the proportion of stuff that’s freely accessible is rising, and Google Scholar is incredibly useful even without institutional access – much of the time you can do well enough by ignoring everything that doesn’t have a pdf version linked.
          This is all good, and exactly the reason why nobody who might ever need a journal article should be supporting the predatory ‘publishers’ who want to take all the rights to your work, get reviewers and editors to work on it for peanuts or nothing, and then not make it public.

          1. Subject does matter. If you have into quantum optics…the chance that you will not find all your articles for free is almost zero. It is relatively new field, not ubiquitous, but people are glad to put their stuff up for free.

            Also in the field of physics, the Chinese, strangely enough, are doing better at experiments than just eight years ago. A lot better. They will publish in English journals, but I wonder if ever there will be a time when you can collect the article but it will only be in Chinese.

            Not long ago the world of physics was German and French … 1920s. English is only recent. Chinese, next?? I doubt it, but still a Chinese journal could publish everything that have for free and few non-Chines would be able to read them.

            1. I think English is the QWERTY of Science; after all it was the language of Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Jesus. At least I hope so, because my Latin, Greek, French, German and Spanish are very rusty, and I was away the day they did Chinese at school.

  11. Thank you for the great analysis. The situation is indeed obscene, and it will have to change.

    As a researcher myself, here’s my little personal analysis of the problem. I see commercial publishers and their journals in two ways:

    1)They provide the all-important badges of honor that I need to advance my career, i.e., papers published in top journals.

    2)They drain the finances of my university for a service which could cost very little and, to add insult to injury, they pose active barriers to the spread of knowledge (ridiculously expensive pay-walls , restricted use of pdf’s, fight against free archiving of preprints, even to the linking to preprints, etc.).

    The problem created by (2) – which, in the age of the internet and in view of the publisher’s mission of spreading knowledge, is simply ridiculous! – is caused by their having actively obtained the near-monopoly of (1).

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