Inflation on the price of knowledge: French universities boycott journals

How much is too much? For all the talk that the publishers of major journals such as Science, Nature and the Lancet are charging too much for their wares, it seems a limit has been reached. French universities, in particular, have had enough and are just saying “non!” and cancelling their journal subscriptions.

“We think the price increases are becoming a real threat to research, and publishers should be aware of this,” says Sandrine Malotaux, head of department of negotiation and licensing at Couperin, an organisation that negotiates fees with publishers on behalf of universities, libraries and research institutions in France.

Is this the wake-up call the big publishers need? Should other universities follow suit, researchers organise a wider boycott, or is there another way to make the journal oligarchs realise that enough is enough?

Too much, too high, too fast

In January 2014 the library of the University Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) cancelled its subscription to Science, citing the “unacceptable 100% price increase” and “inelegant behaviour” of the journal. Science subsequently reduced this increase to 47%, but this was not enough to save the subscription.

The University of Paris V (Paris Descartes) then announced that would no longer pay for journals across a large swathe of the publishing landscape: from Wiley, Taylor & Francis and the Nature Publishing Group, students and researchers there have access to a reported 3,000 fewer titles as before, as a result of this move.

And this followed the University of Angers dropping its subscriptions to journals of the American Physical Society (APS) in 2014 after receiving a 33% price hike. In this case, the spat was resolved by an intermediary.

The situation is increasingly difficult, according to Malotaux, who in addition to her role at Couperin is also director of information and library services at the Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse, as librarians’ budgets are cut or remain the same with more online users to service. “It is very difficult to explain to publishers as their argument is that they must charge more as they publish more content,” she says. “But when we speak to researchers they say they receive too much information and cannot read it all.”

On the record

When asked by EuroScientist for a response, a spokesperson for the AAAS, which publishes Science, said that AAAS does not offer consortium pricing to organisations like Couperin. They also said that AAAS had on several occasions requested information pertaining to the organisational structure of UPMC and its 18 campuses, which led to the initial 100% price increase. “The UPMC had unfortunately curtailed discussions regarding our request for information. Most recently, AAAS submitted a further proposal to Couperin on 25 October 2013. AAAS continues to welcome a response so that a global subscription fee can be quoted,” says Natasha Pinol, AAAS senior communications officer, based in Washington, DC, USA.

The University of Paris V (Paris Descartes) recently cancelled both Nature and Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, confirmed the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). “We are certainly open to discussions about pricing and subscriptions and any unique pressures an individual institution may face, and in this instance did suggest some potential solutions and alternatives,” says NPG’s corporate communications officer Alex Jackson, based in London, UK. “We work with the Couperin consortium, of which both [including UPMC] the institutions are part.”

And a Wiley’s spokesperson says that they realise that the market place is changing and, more than ever, flexible licensing and access options are needed. “We understand that the University of Paris V is facing challenging times and Wiley has been working closely with the university librarians to address their very challenging budget conditions,” says Chichester, UK-based Wiley journals publicist Ben Norman.

Higher education institutions that operate via the Couperin consortium –or equivalents such as SCOAP3 or Swets— are still able to negotiate separately if the group deems a price increase unacceptable. But with average decreases in library budgets at 9% in 2013 and 5% in 2014 as quoted by Couperin, that does not leave individual organisations with much chance of success. Indeed, 66% of libraries think there budgets will be reduced in 2014.

Hence, most institutions use Couperin, which is also in advanced negotiations with Elsevier, a publisher which was the target of a scientist-led boycott in 2012, regarding its fees for 2014 and beyond; details of this saga were leaked online. Parent company Reed Elsevier posted a revenue of €4.3billion ( $5.9 billion) in 2012, making it the second biggest publisher in the world.

Publishers’ challenge

Besides individual cases of universities cancelling subscriptions –and there are more, such as from the University of Montreal–what more can be done? A more radical approach is needed, according to Bjoern Brembs , neurobiologist and professor of neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg, Germany. “[what] I’m suggesting to libraries is to cut more subscriptions and to start with the most expensive ones, cut the biggest deals,” he says.

Brembs, who has written articles on his blog supporting the subscription cancellations, says the money saved would be better used building independent collections of digital resources free from publishers’ ownership. “We currently outsource publishing to publishers,” he says. “Given we’re vastly overpaying publishers, every year we could have €3billion to put into the digital infrastructure that we’re sorely missing.”

He adds that the publishers’ profit margins of 30% are far too high, as are journal costs of editing and distributing papers, which vary widely, but can run into the thousands per paper.

Brembs advocates using a system like the Brazil’s SciELO (The Scientific Electronic Library Online) which he says can support access to papers at a fraction of the cost. “It would save billions to put towards our intellectual data and software,” he says.

And Brembs is not alone in thinking the fundamental issue of who owns access to scientific data, currently the publishers, needs to change. “Who owns the information?” says Malotaux. “This is an issue for all researchers all over the world.”

She says that at Couperin they are trying to convince publishers that agreements should include ownership of the data. “We think public institutions should own the information,” she says. “We think it’s not the part of publisher to ensure long term preservation because that has always been part of public libraries.”

National archiving strategy

To this end, Couperin has partnered with the national scientific research agency in France, CNRS, and other bodies to purchase outright the archive collections of major journals. The €60 million ISTEX programme now has journals from Nature Publishing Group, Elsevier, the Royal Society of Chemistry and more which are free for researchers to access.

Part of a wider policy developing in France is for national purchasing of digital contents. If the trend continues across Europe and abroad some major publishers could be reaching the end of the party. The huge cash injections of such sales gives them the money they want, granted. But you can only sell a complete archive to a country once. If the move towards open access takes care of future issues, might this be the beginning of last orders?

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by BUA

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Arran Frood

Freelance Science Journalist at EuroScientist
Arran is currently a Freelance journalist for New Scientist, Nature, BBC Online, Focus, Euroscientist.com, The Lancet, The Independent, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Youris.com, The Khaleej Times, Nature Medicine, Chemistry & Industry.
He also has experience with Nature Publishing Group and Science Photo Library and also works as a Digital Content Producer at BBSRC.
Arran Frood

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One thought on “Inflation on the price of knowledge: French universities boycott journals”

  1. Enfin, on attaque la question de l’open access par son vrai bout ! Et surtout la question des évaluations et classements par le nombre de publications, qui créent cette inflation!
    C’est un véritable appel à une vision plus raisonnable, merci !

    It is not too late to deal with “open access” by funding questions, which argument is in general left under the carpet with so much hypocrisy ! And finally to go deeper into evaluations and ranking of science in general, which create inflation of publications which have finally to be paid by some body ! This article seems to call to call for a more reasonable and integer vision of scientific activity. Thanks !