Open Access - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

2  Access to academic research

12.  In order to understand how a large scale shift to open access in the UK could be managed to deliver the maximum benefits for all stakeholders, it is necessary to understand the underlying economic issues in the scholarly publishing market, and the main barriers to access. Currently, public funds are used three times in the research process: to pay the academics who conduct the research, to pay the salaries of the academics who conduct the peer review process,[11] and finally to pay for access to this research through institutional journal subscriptions, which is the dominant business model in the scholarly publishing market.

13.  Each year, UK Higher Education libraries alone spend more than £150m purchasing subscriptions to academic journals,[12] yet they still cannot afford to access all the research that academics need.[13] The massive increase in journal subscription prices over the past few decades (known as the 'serials crisis') has forced even the very wealthiest libraries[14] to limit subscriptions as prices become unaffordable. Figure 1 plots relative growth of serials expenditures against the consumer price index over the past 25 years (data compiled by the Association of Research Libraries[15]). Serials expenditures have been rising at approximately triple the rate of the consumer price index over this time.

Figure 1: Data from Association of Research Libraries showing relative growth of serials expenditure against the consumer price index

14.  Against this backdrop, the profit margins of the large commercial scholarly publishers continue to increase, far outstripping the profits of the rest of the publishing sector. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Report Scientific Publications: Free for all? (2004) stated:

There is mounting concern that the financial benefits from the Government's substantial investment in research are being diverted to an excessive degree into the pockets of publishers' shareholders.[16]

15.  Those concerns were based in part on the market leader Reed Elsevier's then operating profit margin of 34%. By the time of this inquiry, Reed Elsevier's operating profit margin had increased to 37%.[17] Their representative told us that the Competition Commission had reviewed the scholarly publishing market and concluded that "there was vibrant competition" and "a functioning market".[18] This is only a partial description of that review. When the Commission considered the proposed acquisition of publisher Harcourt by Reed Elsevier 2001, the review panel was split. Although two members concluded that there was no public interest issue, one strongly disagreed on the basis that the merger would both result in higher journal prices than would otherwise have been the case, and disincentivise developments in open access.[19] Since then, two of the largest scholarly publishers (Wiley and Blackwell) have merged and journal prices have continued to rise.

16.  The Finch Report, the Government and RCUK[20] have all argued that universities should negotiate with publishers to bring down subscription costs, particularly in light of an expected increase in payments of APCs. However, non-disclosure clauses attached to subscription contracts, which are widely used by commercial publishers and which prevent subscribers from disclosing the financial terms and conditions of their arrangements with publishers, represent a significant obstacle to these negotiations. One academic described the effect of such clauses:

There is no way I could know I am being charged more or less than another, which means that the power for us to negotiate is driven down. We are given one price that we cannot tell anyone else; we do not know what they are being charged, and the cycle continues.[21]

17.  The Minister for Science and Universities, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP told us that although such clauses "leave a nasty taste in the mouth",[22] they were not illegal and the Government would not intervene. Other factors preventing healthy competition in the publishing market include the fact that although researchers are the primary users of the products of academic publishing, libraries are the primary purchasers of those products. Users are therefore largely insulated from the product cost and pressure on prices is reduced. We consider these issues further in Chapter 6.

11   Research Information Network's Activities, costs and funding flows in the scholarly communications system in the UK, 2008, estimated that the time spend by UK peer reviewers in 2007 represented a cash cost of £165m. Back

12   Ev w125 Back

13   Ibid Back

14 Back

15 Back

16   The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Scientific publications: Free for all? 2004 (hereafter, 'Free for all?') para 2

Note: Free for all? assessed the provision of scientific journals to the academic community and wider public, the market for scientific publications, the effects of trends in journal pricing, and the impact that new publishing trends would have on the scientific process. Back

17   Q6 Back

18   Q25 Back

19 /fulltext/457c2.pdf Back

20   Ev 103 Back

21   Q89 Back

22   Q137 Back

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Prepared 10 September 2013