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The Bristol Cable

Universities are being charged millions of pounds for their libraries to access work they donated.

Academic publishing has gone from an industry that shares knowledge, to an industry that keeps creating innovative new ways to lock it away.

Academic publishing is a uniquely troubling industry. Its profits are worth billions annually and its profit margins compare favourably with those of oil giants and tech juggernauts. Unlike these industries, however, its core workforce does not see a return on its earnings despite the marginal costs being few.

How is this possible? Academics work hard to produce research that is funded by taxpayers, charities and universities. This work is effectively donated for free to academic journals who pass it to other academics for peer review as unpaid volunteers. If the work is deemed up to scratch by these volunteers, the journal accepts the work and the university must sign the copyright over to publishers, who are free to place it online behind a paywall.

This prevents the public, who typically funded it, from ever seeing it – unless they want to pay up to several hundred pounds for a single PDF file. Adding insult to injury, the publishers then charge the very same institutions that donated the work millions of pounds for their libraries to access it.

Throwback to paper

It is hard to imagine such an exploitative system would be created today, yet it persists as a throwback to a time of paper journals that had to be painstakingly printed and delivered. These costs may still exist for a few journals, but in practice it is rare that a modern researcher will ever touch a paper journal. Printing hardly even matters in a world where it costs a fraction of a penny to host a file online.

But even as the costs of publishing have fallen through the floor as a result of the digital revolution, the prices academic publishers charge for access have soared. Universities are in a bind – they must fund publishers’ billion-pound profits and bow to their arbitrary increases of fees every year, or their lifeblood is threatened. Academic publishing has gone from an industry that shares knowledge, to an industry that keeps creating innovative new ways to lock it away.

However, the academic publishing landscape is now changing, thanks to a pirate website called Sci-Hub. The site, which has operated out of Russia since 2011, offers instant access to 85% of all pay-walled research and successfully delivers on 99% of incoming requests. That’s according to newly-published research – research that, incidentally, is available for anyone to read for free in an open access journal; a step that researchers are increasingly taking to ensure their hard work isn’t locked away by the publishing industry.

Sci-Hub’s 99% success rate is far higher than the average university library can muster, as any student not studying at a world-class institution will recognise. That’s because Sci-Hub doesn’t rely on access to any single university to source its content, but instead taps an unknown number of world-class universities. In contrast, researchers who insist on gaining access legally are left out in the cold.

Access limitations

“I work at UWE and notice the limitations in access – previously I was at a Russell Group university, so I assume moving out of a redbrick has been the cause. It’s annoying and unfair,” says one university employee, who requested not to be named. “I especially feel sorry for the students who are paying exactly the same £9K but not getting the same access to knowledge. I don’t think this is UWE’s fault – and I am really happy if they choose to spend the money on student support, placements and opportunities instead of giving it to publishers. But it still feels unfair.”

At Bristol University, the situation seems markedly different. “Mostly, yes, I can read what I need, given the limited time I have for reading. For my field, there are a few notable exceptions, but generally I feel privileged,” says a staff member.

The variance of access between the universities is mirrored by the difference in money each university spends on academic publishers. Library researcher Stuart Lawson found, using Freedom of Information requests, that last academic year Bristol University spent £2,355,200 on the top eight publishers alone. In contrast, during that time, UWE spent £838,235 on these same publishers.

“A few journal publishers are continuing to make huge profits from academic labour and every year libraries still need to pay even more money to access journals, despite the fact that almost 50% of articles are open access. If researchers would realise that they no longer need to prop up this unsustainable system by publishing in closed journals, then universities could instead fund open access alternatives,” Lawson says.

Rising spend

Academic research spending seems to be rising much faster than the rate of inflation, at least when it comes to the leading publishers. Last year Bristol University spent £188,239 more and UWE spent £33,741 more on the top eight publishers than they had the year before. Of course, these figures only represent part of both universities’ annual journal spends.

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To find out why our universities are allowing these numbers to spiral, we spoke to Greg Ince, who works in collections and acquisitions for UWE library. “All the prices are essentially made up, we all know that,” Ince explains. “We know the publishing industry essentially says, ‘We want this much from the UK somehow. You chop it up however you like, but we’ll get it back one way or another’.”

UWE responds to these rising prices by removing journals from the library’s collection that aren’t proving continually popular with students. “We’re diligent about weeding out and getting rid of content that is no longer performing,” Ince explains. ”There is an expectation as old as time that journals will constantly put up the price and, while we’re not happy… it’s understood that they’re the lifeblood of libraries’ content provision. We take the approach of value and making sure we cut back on dead wood wherever we can”.

It could be argued, however, that once a university feels compelled to remove academic works from its research collection, simply because they aren’t continually being read, then it is time to recognise that the system is deeply broken.

While nobody at Bristol University was available for comment, the university’s Freedom of Information office informed the Cable that last year the university cut its journal spend by over half a million pounds; from £4m down to £3.4m. This is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that during the same period the university spent nearly £200,000 more on the top eight publishers, suggesting that rather than confronting the big publishers about their rising prices it, like UWE, may instead be cutting back heavily on other parts of their collections.

Punishing restrictions

While UWE saves millions of pounds annually, compared with Bristol University, by being more frugal with the journals it purchases, journal publishers can be punishing. Some journal packages that UWE pays for include ludicrous restrictions that make them practically worthless in the rapidly changing world of cutting edge science and technology, Ince explains. “You might get shortened runs of the content, you might not get the most recent ones,” he says. “They might just say, ‘For the last year [of publications] you won’t have access’, or it might be the last 30 days. In some cases you might not have access to the last 10 years of publications.”

But while in the past, universities had to begrudgingly accept whatever demands publishers made, they now have a powerful bargaining chip. Word has rapidly spread that virtually all essential research can now be accessed illegally for free on the internet. Last year, for the first time in UWE’s history, the university saw a decline in the number of requests students made for research through its online library catalogue.

The explanation for the drop seems obvious, according to Ince. “I can’t say that students are coming up to us and saying they are using Sci-Hub, but what I can say is that our journal use has typically gone up bit-by-bit [in previous years],” he says. “It would be fairly safe to say something significant happened [last year] and my team suspects that it is some kind of open piracy, because it just seemed too close [to the rise of Sci-Hub] to be a coincidence and I don’t think we’re alone.”

Universities and the researchers that work in them are increasingly starting to question the current system. Sixteen thousand researchers have now joined a petition against Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher. This isn’t your average petition. These academics make up a key part of Elsevier’s vast unpaid workforce and they have vowed variously not to publish, referee or do editorial work for the publisher until it reduces its “exorbitantly high prices”, stops bundling essential journals for sale only with other non-essential ones and stops supporting legislation that aims “to restrict the free exchange of information”.

Around the world, universities and governments are joining the fightback. Finland has placed academic publishers on notice that it is prepared to play hardball in negotiations for advancing open access, and not renew contracts unless publishers make big changes to how they do business. Nearly 3,000 Finnish researchers have backed the plan, promising not to work for Elsevier unless it meets the demands of Finland’s negotiators.

In Taiwan, similar negotiations have passed breaking point, with 140 Taiwanese universities pulling out of deals with Elsevier at the end of 2016. The uprising has spread to over 60 universities in Germany, which have collectively stopped doing business with the publisher.

The question for Bristol’s universities is: should we be next? Bristol’s universities could save themselves millions of pounds every year by ending their relationships with publishers that don’t offer a fair deal. By instead supporting open access journals and repositories, they could ensure the work Bristol’s researchers create is available to be read by anyone, anywhere in the world, rather than just those students and researchers in an ever shrinking number of ivory towers.

You can follow Simon Oxenham on Twitter at @simoxenham

Read more on: education, university of bristol, uwe...

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