Why price transparency is important when buying academic journal access

It's often not clear how much a university needs to pay to access scholarly articles. For Jisc's Anna Vernon, the move away from paywall publishing offers the opportunity to reexamine these costs.

Earlier this month, cOAlition S, consisting of 22 research funding organisations, including the Wellcome Trust and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), announced that from the 1st July 2022 they will no longer fund publishing fees in journals which do not adhere to one of two approved price transparency frameworks.

At least £18.3 million of Research Councils UK (now UK Research and Innovation) funding in 2016-17 was spent on publishing fees for fully open access (OA) and subscription journals, so there’s a significant financial imperative in meeting this requirement. There are also fresh opportunities to foster a deeper understanding between publishers, funders and universities and to fix long-standing structural issues.

Already under considerable financial pressure, greater price transparency is central to informed and data driven collection management. Ensuring that “publication fees are commensurate with the publication services delivered” (see principle 5 of Plan S) will be key to decisions around investment of funds to support open access publishing in what is expected to be an exceptionally difficult period for university and public finances.

Why price transparency?

Under subscription arrangements, most major journal agreements consist of bundled collections of titles for a single fee, rather than individual subscriptions priced per title. This has led to price obfuscation in two ways: the journal list price as advertised on publisher websites is rarely the price actually paid by universities; and the price paid for access is often based on the amount spent on print subscriptions (plus annual price increases) from when that university originally took out a subscription – often 20 years ago. This has created a situation where the amounts paid for access to the same content by similar institutions can be wildly different – and often do not correspond with the value universities derive from these agreements, their teaching or research profile, or their finances.

Scholarly publishing is, to increasing degrees, a shared endeavour between publishers, societies, academics (authors and editors), institutions, and funders. Their respective contributions are long acknowledged but the contribution each makes to the process, and the costs associated with each process, are often not fully understood. Particularly important when institutions and funders are picking up the bill.

From paying for restricted access to paying to support open access

The transition from the paywall system to full and immediate open access provides the opportunity for the sector to move from inequitable pricing structures to arrangements that better reflect the value and true cost of publication. The agreements Jisc are negotiating on behalf of the sector seek to break the link with historic spend by assigning expenditure to clearly defined access and publishing services.  One of the means of doing this is through transitional agreements.

We are pleased that several publishers, including, Wiley, Sage and IOP Publishing have agreed to share their longer-term vision for transitioning to OA with a new group, the Transformative Agreements Oversight Group. This group chaired by Anne Horn, director of library services and university librarian at the University of Sheffield, will provide insight to UUK/Jisc content negotiation strategy group and will work alongside publishers to review impact and progress on implementing transitional agreements and “flipping” their portfolios to OA.

Participating publishers will seek the group’s input into the development of their OA policies and share commercially sensitive data with the group on a confidential basis. This will also include the criteria used for determining whether hybrid journals can be flipped to OA. By doing this we want to encourage greater scrutiny of transitional agreements, their efficacy as a tool for an open access transition and to build confidence that the prices charged for publishing services are fair and reasonable.

We’ve already seen through publisher library advisory groups and initiatives like the Open Library of the Humanities that an open dialogue between universities and publishers can improve publishing processes and drive innovation. The cOAlition S transparency frameworks and the new Transformative Agreements Oversight Group will allow universities, research institutes and funders to get a true understanding of the costs of publishing services, allow them to make more informed decisions and use their investment (that may have previously been tied up in bundled subscription agreements) in the most effective manner.

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