July 8, 2014

The numbers they didn’t want you to see: study finds that academic publishers basically charge whatever they feel like


Academic publishers' pricing strategies are exactly as nonsensical as this response. Image via Flickr.

Academic publishers’ pricing strategies are exactly as nonsensical as this Magic 8-Ball response. Image via Flickr.

It’s been understood for quite a while now that the prices big academic publishers charge universities and libraries for access to academic journals bear little to no relationship to the costs that the publishers actually incur. But a report just released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America sheds light on another Wonderlandish aspect of the business.

Because it turns out that the prices don’t reflect much about the size or nature of the purchasing institution either. In other words, it doesn’t matter how limited your resources are, or how many students need to use the materials; the only thing that matters is how much the publishers think they can get away with asking.

The results of numerous years of data-gathering were discussed briefly on ScienceInsider by John Bohannon, and in greater deal by Jef Akst on The Scientist (for those without access to Bohannon’s full article in Science—though, honestly, this does seem like an article that should be available in full, for free, to everyone) a few weeks ago.

To marshal the information, researchers contacted university librarians across the country and asked about the terms of their contracts with publishers like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Mathematician Tim Gowers, who initiated the Cost of Knowledge boycott in 2012 (MobyLives blogged about it at the time), has written about this stage of the research on his blog: it involved not only voluntary disclosures, but also Freedom of Information Act requests to get information that wasn’t initially forthcoming, requests which Elsevier vigorously contended on the grounds that the prices were trade secrets. But that argument ultimately didn’t float.

The researchers were, in the end, able to get information about 2,009 deals: the full set of numbers is here, at the “2009 payment data” link towards the bottom. And it indicates that publishers are using a lack of transparency about pricing—often secured by nondisclosure agreements—to charge different fees to institutions that are in other respects similar, that have the same number of full-time students and PhD graduates annually, for instance. From Ekst’s article:

The similarly sized University of Wisconsin, Madison, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for example, paid Elsevier $1.22 million and $2.16 million, respectively, for the same bundle of journals. The University of Texas, Austin, paid $481,932 for Springer journals, while the University of Miami in Florida, which has far fewer PhD students, paid more ($553,923). And the smaller University of Oklahoma paid more than twice as much ($500,744) as the University of Missouri, Columbia, ($233,659) for access to Wiley journals.

It’s not at all clear how these figures were set—perhaps they represent standard percentage increases on past payment levels (which doesn’t make it any better, but at least makes it vaguely logical)? And it’s disturbing to see publishers charging smaller universities higher prices; it looks like publishers could be bullying poorer schools who try to compete with larger or better-funded institutions by dedicating ever greater swathes of their budgets to subscriptions. This of course means less money for other acquisitions, like books.

Now that these numbers are out, though, schools of all sizes have been given a crucial bargaining chip. When the next round of negotiations comes due, publishers should expect to find themselves facing some significantly less exploitable—and probably pretty testy—partners on the other side of the table.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.