Posted by: bluesyemre | February 7, 2018

Universities spend millions on accessing results of publicly funded #research by Mark C. Wilson


University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees.

I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research – and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers.

There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the public’s access to the latest information.

Read more: Not just available, but also useful: we must keep pushing to improve open access to research

The project took more than three years because universities originally refused to release the information. I had to make a complaint to the Ombudsman, the government official charged with determining whether information from the state sector should be publicly disclosed.

The Ombudsman’s final opinion ruled unambiguously that the public’s right to know outweighs any commercial interests of the publishers and universities.

The cost of knowledge

The following points stand out in a preliminary analysis of spending by New Zealand universities on subscriptions to journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis between 2013 and 2016.

  • The total amount spent on the four publishers is substantial, around US$14.9 million in 2016 (the total spending on all publishers is likely at least 2-3 times that). The University of Auckland, with 33000 students and 2200 academic and research staff, spent US$3.8 million, including US$1.6 million on Elsevier.
  • The mean expenditure per academic/research staff member in 2016 was around US$1800.
  • The University of Canterbury is getting a much worse deal than the others, 35% above the mean.
  • The rate of increase of subscription costs (17%) over the period clearly exceeds the Consumer Price Index inflation rate over the period (2-3% in New Zealand, USA and Europe).
  • The publisher with the highest percentage increase over the period was Taylor & Francis (33%).

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