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Study sheds light on academic publishing oligopoly

By Scott Strasser, May 31 2016 —

One of Canada’s top experts on scholarly publications presented on academic publishing at the University of Calgary on May 25.

Vincent Larivière, a University of Montreal information systems professor and Canada Research Chair holder for the transformations of scholarly communication, spoke about a recent paper he co-authored, “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishing in the Digital Era.”

The study measured the usage of electronic journal collections at four universities in Quebec. It found that journals’ perceived importance among faculty and students did not usually correlate to how often they were downloaded. The study sought new ways to decide which journals universities should subscribe to.

“The amount of journals we don’t use is striking. It’s close to half. And these journals, you pay for them,” Larivière said.

In one instance, 80 per cent of a university’s downloads came from 10 per cent of its journals collection.

Larivière spoke about the academic publishing oligopoly, citing five publishers that dominate more than half of the market.

“In the mid 1990s, all these small journals were not able to transition from print to electronic, so they became very cheap to be bought or to have agreements created by the big [publishers],” Larivière said. “Right now, more than half of journals are owned by five corporations, which makes it difficult to get rid of them because they control the scientific information we need to do our own research.”

Larivière showed how publisher Reed-Elsevier’s profit margins never drop below 40 per cent. He said this is due to their ability to get free labour from researchers and resell it continuously.

“When you write a paper, you’re not paid. When you review a paper, you’re not paid either,” he said. “They don’t pay for the material and they can resell it as much as they want because it costs them nothing.”

According to U of C vice-provost libraries and cultural resources Tom Hickerson, the U of C spends about $10 million a year on academic journals. The university currently subscribes to 11,556 journals, most of which are bought in  multi-year subscription packages.

Hickerson compared scholarly publishing to the cable television industry.

“You want 50 channels, but instead they sell you 337 for twice what you would pay for the 50,” he said. “We don’t get to make our decisions around a single journal. We have to look at the bundle as a whole.”

Hickerson said major publishers raise the price of their packages between 4.5 and six per cent every year. In some cases, it puts the U of C under pressure as to which subscriptions to keep.

The U of C unsubscribed from the Oxford Journals bundle — a package of 313 journals costing $124,000 — in December 2015.

“We decided Oxford would have the least impact on faculty, staff and students of the journals we could choose from in that moment of time,” Hickerson said.

Hickerson said cancelling the Oxford package was an “evidence-based decision.” He said 71 per cent of the journals under the package were available in other packages and that most of the Oxford titles weren’t being downloaded anyway.

Hickerson said the Canadian dollar’s recent devaluation hasn’t helped the situation, as about 85 per cent of transactions are made in American currency. A 22 per cent drop in the Canadian dollar’s value between April 2014 and April 2015 was especially hard on the U of C libraries. 

“With that 22 per cent drop, we had to stop looking at the fringes and start looking at the major bundles,” Hickerson said.

Larivière said universities in Quebec saved significantly on their journal collections after applying his study’s findings to their decisions on which journals to buy.

Larivière’s study will be nationalized this fall. Twenty-eight Canadian universities, including the U of C, will join the second phase of the study.

Hickerson said the study will be relevant for the U of C.

“This will be a very important study that gives us the same kind of information,” Hickerson said. “The reason these studies going forward are so important is that they’ll give us a way to look out into the future, rather than having to make a decision right now.”

A previous version of this story insinuated that Vincent Larivière referred to the academic publishing industry as “corrupt” in his presentation. 

The Gauntlet apologizes to our readers for this error.

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