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Cuts to journal subscriptions an opportunity, not a crisis

Costs and benefits of cuts must be weighed accordingly.

By KYLE SILER | January 5, 2016

Memorial University recently trended Canada-wide on Twitter over news that it was considering cuts to roughly five percent of its journal collection. Five days later, it was reported that Ryerson University may follow suit (although the university later clarified it had made no official statements regarding the future of its journal subscriptions). Understandably, some faculty and students are perturbed by these events. They likely represent a harbinger of the future of knowledge curation in the age of digital knowledge.

While pruning subscriptions may seem drastic to some, the costs and benefits of journal cuts need to be weighed accordingly. The current academic journal market is an oligopoly, with five publishers controlling 70 percent of journals. In order to keep up with journal costs that outpace inflation, Memorial increased spending by 25 percent ($1.5 million) over the previous five years. Those funds could have otherwise been used for other important university goals and functions including student services, internal research grants, reducing class sizes, supporting student financial aid, hiring new tenure-track faculty, physical infrastructure, as well as paying staff and contract faculty living wages.

Faculty at Memorial – or at any institution that exits a “big deal” with a for-profit publisher – are right to forcefully express the importance of periodicals and timely access to cutting-edge research. Inconvenient as it may be, the threat of withdrawal is what gives people power in negotiations. Much like how cable companies strategically place popular channels on expensive tiers, for-profit publishers bundle high-impact journals with numerous other publications in order to make withdrawal difficult for large research universities. Since the marginal cost of granting schools access to academic journals is nil for for-profit publishers, this gives universities the potential leverage of giving publishers the choice of taking “less money” or “no money” (publishers tend to take the former!). Put simply, universities that engage in militant negotiations reduce subscription costs paid to for-profit publishers.

In the Memorial case, responding to the review of five percent of a university’s journal collection with maudlin pleas, catastrophizing and hyperbole is myopic and erodes negotiating leverage. However, this conflict is not unique to Memorial. In response to similar journal cuts, Brock University faculty filed a grievance demanding that the cash-strapped university increase funding to the library to pay for the discontinued journals. This is exactly how for-profit publishers want faculty and universities to respond to cuts, as it entails tacit acceptance of their business models. In the Memorial case, acquiescing to faculty demands would be a capitulation to for-profit publishers. In fact, if universities are forced to re-order priorities and make contentious – if not also painful – funding decisions to maintain journal subscriptions, this means for-profit publishers set their price points perfectly to maximize profits.

While the current academic publishing business model has squeezed university budgets, it has been lucrative for publishers. For example, Elsevier enjoyed profits of $1.1 billion USD in 2013. Major for-profit publishers enjoy profit rates that other industries envy, while assuming little to no downside risk. When profits are derived from monopoly or oligopoly power, profits are not meritocratic, nor do they spur innovation.

Even though many important academic journals are controlled by for-profit publishers, there are still ways around paywalls. Some universities offer Open Access repositories for scholars to post peer-reviewed but unformatted versions of published articles. The arXiv Open Access repository is the site of a great deal of important cutting-edge work in the fast-moving hard sciences. Other academics have gotten creative to ensure that paywalled research is readily available to those without subscriptions. In November 2015, the entire editorial board of Lingua, a leading linguistics journal, walked out en masse from the Elsevier-controlled journal to found an Open Access alternative journal, Glossa. The success of new Open Access journals – including PLOS One, PeerJ and Sociological Science – suggests that the profit motive may not be necessary to spur innovation in academia, nor do library budgets have to be pillaged to provide access to cutting-edge research.

Quality scholarship carries costs for production; even Open Access publishing is not “free.” However, profits accrued by oligopolistic publishers appear to be what economists call deadweight losses, where money is squandered inefficiently with little benefit for most stakeholders in the greater system of academic publishing that it serves.

I empathize with any scholars dealing with the inconveniences that accompany journal cuts. However, there is inevitably going to be some friction as universities and scholars either negotiate journal prices down and/or move to alternatives to for-profit publishers. Even Harvard University cannot, or will not, keep up with the spiraling costs of journal subscriptions.

Even if universities have the money to pay for overpriced journals, they should consider better uses for these funds. For example, in response to rising journal costs, university libraries from across the spectrum are cannibalizing book budgets to compensate, purchasing less than half the number of books they did in the 1980s. In turn, complaints that universities should make cuts elsewhere instead of cutting journals – whether justified or not – are red herrings. Plummeting oil prices have depressed the value of the Canadian dollar, which will intensify budget pressures faced by Canadian university libraries. Brock University, University of Montreal – and perhaps with Memorial and Ryerson soon to follow – have taken the lead with canceling subscriptions, either strategically and/or due to economic exigencies. These institutions are not the first, nor will they be the last to make difficult but necessary cuts to overpriced journals.

I suggest that scholars affected by cuts should view these situations as opportunities, instead of crises. Despite the alarmist rhetoric of some scholars in response to the cuts, resulting hardships will not be severe. Memorial librarians claim that requested articles from cancelled journals can often be delivered on the same day as the request. Worst-case scenario, delivery will take 72 hours. This is hardly a catastrophe or evidence of the degradation of a research university. In fact, sharing resources via document delivery may be a cost-saving innovation for co-operating universities. Impressing the importance of leading journals to stakeholders of a research university is worthwhile, but the way this conflict is being played out in the public eye sends the wrong message. The notion some scholars seem to hold that universities should be indifferent to the cost of journals is both unrealistic and pernicious, given the leverage that this stance gives for-profit publishers. Any particularly important journals (perhaps ranked in the Top 20 or 30 in a given field) lost in the cancellation of bundles can and should be purchased on an à la carte basis.

I appreciate the occasional inconveniences journal cuts may impose on scholars. However, continuing to pay excessive costs for academic journals is even worse for university research over the long term. If people still want to complain about the situation, there are better ways to do so than carping at librarians or administrators for taking a stand over financial issues. Instead, complaints and activism should be focused on the people who negotiated the journal costs, the professional associations who sell out important journals to for-profit publishers and the oligopolistic publishing economy that forces universities to make these unfortunate, but increasingly inevitable, decisions.

Kyle Siler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

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  1. Sarah Bond (pseudonym) / January 5, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    I appreciate the anger being directed at CRKN and not at librarians, although it is worth noting that in some instances they are one and the same. The University Librarian or Dean of Libraries is often a board member at CRKN and s/he played a role in negotiating these prices. You can see it at Memorial where the University Librarian’s response to the cutting of journals was not to defend the professional judgement of the librarians, but instead to be a mouthpiece for the problematic system.

    While librarians highest professional standards are supposed to be freedom of information, thought and speech, this is almost always applied to everyone but their own profession (see for example: or In my own institution, we have been explicitly told not to discuss the budget situation with faculty.

  2. DisgruntedJuniorFaculty / January 5, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    This is a very complex issue. However, I can’t wholly agree with the author’s comment that “In the Memorial case, acquiescing to faculty demands would be a capitulation to for-profit publishers.” As a junior faculty member on a fixed-term contract (and as a postdoctoral researcher before that), while I am happy to support free or low-cost journals, my overriding concern is to publish in the most prestigious or reputable journals that I can—for the sake of my own CV when it comes to job or grant applications. Other junior researchers are in the same position, which means that Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc. continue to receive submissions. And as an active researcher, I need my university to support my research by providing access to those journals.

  3. Your Assumptions Are Wrong / January 6, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I have to disagree with the “activism” presented in this piece. Library budgets as a percentage of Universities’ overall budgets have been in steep decline for over three decades. I have seen it first hand. That is the crux of the problem. “Big Deals” gamesmanship may be annoying but they are not the root of the problem.

    • What about your assumptions ? / January 6, 2016 at 11:25 am

      It most certainly is part of the problem. I have seen it first hand.
      There can be two or more problems at the source of a situation, you know ?

      • Your Assumptions Are Wrong / January 6, 2016 at 11:56 am

        If we had the university budget % of the 1980’s, we would never have had to substantially cut collections every three to five years. Given the same budget percentage as the 1980’s, would we have cut staff, yes, the work has changed, less bodies are needed. Would we have cut collections? – no. Would we have refreshed our facilities sooner? – yes. Would we still have bought less books if we had sufficient budget? – yes. The analytics tell us undergrads use them less and less, today’s students prefer “shorter” works like articles. Budget has to be aligned to demand. Blaming “Big Deal” inflation for eroding book budgets is not entirely accurate. It played a role, but annual book circulations per student was in decline well before eBooks appeared in the marketplace.

  4. Donald Forsdyke / January 6, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    The pharmaceutical industry and their friends in the granting councils must be rubbing their hands in glee. The major fear of Big Pharma is that, after many years of multimillion dollar development of a new therapy, a cutting edge break-through will make it obsolete. Any step that can impoverish excellence and ensure research predictability is welcome. Cutting access to information is one sure way of achieving this goal.

  5. Jocelyne Thompson / January 7, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I would welcome an ongoing discussion within the pages of University Affairs on this topic. We are all agreed that the big publishers are raking in unseemly profits while universities are struggling to pay the bills. But there is more to this story than what is reflected in this article. There is a mistaken impression that title-by-title selection (or à la carte purchasing) will save money, when in fact, the opposite is true for many university libraries. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fact is that the multi-year agreements for bundled journals (such as the ones entered into by CRKN) have capped annual increases while the cost of individual titles – the most prestigious or those on the hottest topics – have spiralled up unchecked. The analysis for our own university library shows that to subscribe to the highest use titles in one particular package would double the amount we currently pay the publisher and would limit access to 161 titles (of the over 2000 now available to our community). The other issue that is not addressed here is the effect of the weakened Canadian dollar which has exacerbated our problems by adding another 40% to our costs over the last two years.

    • Jillian / January 7, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      Jocelyne – Did you read the entire article? Siler did mention the weak Canadian dollar.

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