Journal subscriptions – Wiley, Oxford University Press, Springer

Following on from Tim Gowers work exploring the amount Russell Group universities pay Elsevier for access to journals, I started submitting freedom of information requests to the same universities, asking what they spent on journal subscriptions to Oxford University Press, Wiley and Springer over the previous 5 years[1]. During this time a number of funders have brought in mandatory open access policies, and I wondered if there had been any change in subscription costs during this time period.

£54.5 million was spent in total spent by 17 Universities on subscriptions to these 3 publishers over the 5 years; £31 million of which being spent on journals published by Wiley. Over the period of time, subscription costs increased in most instances, and increased faster than the rate of VAT.

Although the figures are interesting, there is only limited value comparing across universities.

There is a lot of secrecy around the cost of journals; which is why I’ve had to use FOI to get data that really ought to be in the public domain. However, what isn’t known is what access is being purchased in each instance. It is (very, very) likely that different universities are purchasing access to different journals – but I’ve not yet found a university who publishes a list of which journals they subscribe to.

I don’t know if a university would release a list in response to an FOI request, although I am tempted to try. There must be a computational way to work this out, however?

It’s also likely that different universities will be paying different amounts for the same or similar journal access, based upon the strengths of different institutions and organisations to negotiate deals.

Without knowing what universities are purchasing access to, it’s impossible to make statements about why there are price increases over the 5 years (and in some cases very significant price increases). It may be that the universities are purchasing more journals from the publishers, or it may be that publishers have put their prices up.

A catalog of journal subscriptions from institutions would be very useful for all manner of reasons (including enabling academics and students to easily see if there is access to something on a reading list), and it may well start a discussion between academics and librarians about what journals are accessible. I don’t see a reason to keep this information hidden away.

It would also be useful for useage statistics to be made available – even just the number of times an item is downloaded. I’m not sure why these figures are deemed ‘sensitive data’ and why publishers are not keen for this information to be made available. Perhaps if academics and students were aware how rarely some journals were accessed, they might be less willing to allow libraries to continue paying such large subscription fees.

Despite these caveats, the data from the Russell Group universities on journal subscriptions to Wiley, Oxford University Press and Springer make for interesting reading.

I’ve made the data available on Figshare here.

Why these publishers?

People often use Elsevier as a proxy for all the woes in the traditional scholarly publishing market, but I wanted to explore some of the other publishers. It’s very easy to forget other publishers given the focus many devote to just the one company:

  • Oxford University Press – the different roles of OUP interest me. It is a publisher, but is also considered a department of the University of Oxford, and the University receives income from the press (see pages 34 and 35 of this pdf.
  • Springer – recently purchased the open access publisher, Biomed Central, so I was very interested to see what/if anything had been changing here.
  • Wiley – one of the big learned society publishers, and have been involved significantly in many of the discussions at a policy level around publishing, including in the Finch Group.
Of the Russell Group
  • Oxford and Leeds never responded
  • Birmingham – refused point blank to give me the figures.[2]
  • Edinburgh wanted me to pay £10 per FOI – which I refused to do. I still am not sure why – as this wasn’t something I’ve ever previously been asked to do in response to an FOI. After speaking directly to a librarian there, I got some figures but nothing specifically accurate, so I made the choice not to include them in the data.
  • Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary’s weren’t approached. There was no specific reason for this.
Universities – columns AE to AK
  • £54.4 million was spent by 17 Universities on subscriptions to 3 publishers over the 5 years.
  • Over the 5 years, University of Cambridge spent £5 million on subscriptions to journals from the three publishers, paying more in each of the years 2010 to 2014, and spending significantly more than any other university on Springer journals. UCL and the University of Manchester were also big spenders, each paying over £4 million in the same period of time.
  • London School of Economics paid the least of those who responded – paying £1.1 million over the 5 years (just over £200,000 a year).
  • As column AK shows, most universities have experienced a significant increase over the 5 years, with the University of Southampton having the greatest increase at 36 %. All increases are in the double figures, although 2 universities did have a very slight decrease (York – 3.03 % and Cardiff – 1.15%).
  • Only Imperial gave me figures that excluded VAT. I didn’t want to add the VAT from their figures as VAT has varied across the period 2010 to 2014. Without knowing when amounts were paid, there was a strong risk I may remove the wrong amount.
Oxford University Press
  • The most interesting thing about OUP is the very large percentage increases over the time period. Every library experienced at least a double figure percentage increase, and some, such as Imperial, receiving a triple figure increase. Increases in VAT are not anywhere near sufficient justification for these price increases.
  • The sums of money involved are relatively small numbers (compared to other journal subscription costs) – with only £4.36 million spent over 5 years by the 17 universities.
  • The 2 Universities paying the most to OUP are Southampton (£393,276 over 5 years)  and Manchester (£367,083 over 5 years).
  • The LSE spent the least over 5 years – £136,573.
  • I was interested to see if Oxford University received a subsidy on OUP journals, or if they pay for them at all (due to OUP being department of the University of Oxford). I’m sadly unable to answer this – but will be resubmitting the FOI.
Springer (Columns Q -> V)
  • University of Cambridge spends far more on Springer subscriptions than any other Russell Group University who responded – spending over £500,000 a year on average, and £2.65 million over the 5 years. UCL is the next highest spender, with a cost of £1.94 million over the 5 years
  • LSE paid the least over the 5 years – £ 327,779.75.
  • A few Universities managed a reduction in costs over the 5 years, although Glasgow, Nottingham and Southampton all had large percentage increases. Southampton was the highest at 45.4%.
  • Many of the responses came back with figures in Euros. In each instance, I converted the figures to pounds using the exchange rate on the 1st Aug of the relevant year. However, rates fluctuate across a year, so as we do not know when invoices were paid, it is very difficult to give exact figures.
Wiley (Columns X -> AD)
  • £31 million was spent by the 17 universities on Wiley subscriptions over the 5 year period, Only LSE and York paid less than £1 million.
  • Many universities spent around £2 million across the period – but Imperial paid the most spending more excluding VAT than any other university did including VAT.
  • Only York University saw a decrease in subscription costs across the 5 years – dropping 8.1%.
What is next?

I’m really pleased that we’ve got more of the subscription data out into the public domain. I hope that in the future, releasing this data becomes the ‘standard’ thing to do for all universities. I would love to see UK academic libraries commit to publish their journal spend in 2015. I’m sure it will be cheaper than responding to another set of FOIs next year.

As for what’s next? Well, I will be merging my data with the work recently published by Stuart Lawson and Ben Meghreblian, and I’m going to continue talking about publishing models with academics. I’m also going to start thinking about how to develop a catalog of journals that institution subscribes to. If you have any bright ideas on that, please do let me know!



[1] Yes, I’m writing this up *much* later than I’d hoped. I’ve been very ill over much of 2014 – although am better now!

[2] Some of the documents have been made unavailable after I left Open Knowledge Foundation at the end of the summer. I’m hoping to regain access to them soon, so I can provide the explanation that Birmingham University gave me.


5 thoughts on “Journal subscriptions – Wiley, Oxford University Press, Springer

  1. I like your idea of seeing if there is a way to automate the process of finding out what journals an institution subscribes to. Let me know if you think of a way to do it. Searching library catalogues is not reliable enough, so I’m not sure how you could do it other than using authenticated access for each institution to test whether the institution is authenticated to access each individual journal. Did that make sense?!

    Jisc will be building an ‘entitlement registry’ of this data – which institution has access to which journal – but it won’t exist for a couple of years.


  2. A few quick comments:

    Many libraries provide a browsable list of journals, often with the ability to restrict it to a specific publisher. for example, if this link works it should list all Wiley titles at Oxford:
    (it shows they subscribe to 1,814 Wiley journals according to that system)

    For info, libraries pay many of their subs in Euros and dollars. You allude to this, but I don’t think you capture the real issue, libraries themselves can not plan for cost increases, as exchange rates make it impossible. There was a real problem a few years a go where a strong pound resulted in a massive increase in what we were paying in the UK, which some libraries really struggled with.

    Also remember that many Unis moved from print/online subs during this time to online only subs, the latter includes 20% on everything you pay, the former has a large chunk of the cost VAT free (as the cost was attributed to print on the invoice, print periodicals are not VAT-able)



  3. >>”It’s also likely that different universities will be paying different amounts for the same or similar journal access, based upon the strengths of different institutions and organisations to negotiate deals.”

    No doubt there are differences between what universities pay for the same journals that are simply down to how skillfully they negotiate with the publishers. Of course, it’s not ‘the university’ that negotiates; it’s particular individuals within the university. The rate the university gets depends on the skill of those individuals far more than any perceived ‘strength’ of the institution. One reason why universities might be coy about disclosing this stuff is that the inevitable revelation of differences between universities will necessarily reveal which individuals are (probably a lot) better than others at negotiating.

    >>”Perhaps if academics and students were aware how rarely some journals were accessed, they might be less willing to allow libraries to continue paying such large subscription fees.”

    I suspect you may find that the deals universities do with publishers are for packages of journals where the university gets the big brand journals plus a load of crappy ones that ‘nobody’ reads for a package rate that, while substantially more than the sum of the individual sub rates of the big brand journals, is far less than the summed individual sub rates of all the journals included. As there is no breakdown within the package rate for individual journals, cutting out the rarely accessed ones isn’t straightforward. And it’s presumptive to think that the value of having any given journal accessible is proportional to the frequency with which it is accessed anyway.

    One logical outcome of academics seeking to direct how much universities pay for journals is for university adminstrations/libraries to stop negotiating journal access altogether and just leave it to the academics to do themselves. That way, academics get exactly what they want. Provided they put the necessary time in.


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