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As Universities Unbundle Journal Subscription Deals with Dramatic Savings, Large Publishers Celebrate Open Access

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Tisse Métis Égal, PLUX.5, 2012, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, September 12, 2012 © Courtesy of Retis/Flickr.

While Canadian universities begin to make significant reductions in the number of scholarly journals to which they subscribe, large publishers, such as Elsevier, partner with scientific forums to provide at-cost publishing services for newly launched Open Access journals.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


As Anqi Shen reported for University Affairs on March 27, 2018, the University of Montreal has decided to cancel its bundled journal subscriptions, while concluding individual journal subscription deals instead in 2017. This move has both spectacularly reduced the number of paid-for journal titles by 94% from 2,391 items to 160 periodicals only and secured access to the archives of 404 journals. Even though this transition does not involve transitioning to Open Access directly, the journal access setup arrived at closely resembles Green Open Access situations in which subscriptions solely secure access to most recent articles, whereas journal archives are freely accessible. Other 27 Canadian universities can be expected to be keenly interested in the results of this transformation in the manner in which academic and research institutions approach subscription deals, as the University of Montreal has reduced its subscription fees by circa 74% to 236,000 Canadian dollars.

In other words, to the extent that this university has managed to rally behind this change its faculty, researchers and students, it can also be assumed that switching to Open Access as a long-term sustainable academic system-wide model for scholarly publishing should be feasible as well. Based on the data it had gathered from its stakeholders, the University of Montreal has determined that access to only about 30% of the journals it subscribed to in the past is critical to research, learning and teaching done by its community. That the scope of journal subscription cancellations has exceeded 90%, while retaining the support of the majority of this university’s faculty for this decision, indicates that other universities in Canada and internationally are likely to follow suite, while making switching to Open Access one of the possible strategies to deploy for the scientific journals the financial sustainability of which used to be based on paywalls and bundled agreements.

For large publishers, this fragilization of their business models may turn Open Access into a future growth area, especially in emerging markets that, despite their economic growth, are not likely to be able to shoulder the high, and potentially increasing by between 5% and 7% yearly, burden of journal subscriptions. In this respect, Elsevier’s announcement, made public on March 26, 2018, that it partners with the Next Einstein Forum, supported by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, to launch Scientific African, an Open Access peer-reviewed journal targeting African scholars, while aiming to increase the visibility of their research output globally, not only celebrates Open Access, but also responds to the changing market situation internationally.

Large publishers facing reductions in their revenue streams from individual clients, such as Taylor & Francis in the case of the University of Montreal, as academic institutions closely examine the use rate of the subscribed-for journals, compare per-view article costs between different publishers, use inter-library load services for articles that remain behind paywalls and achieve significant bargains in negotiations with individual publishers. By contrast, the low costs and long-term sustainability of Open Access journals can be expected to be increasingly attractive not only to universities, but also to large publishers, due to the advantages they provide for institutions around the world.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Tisse Métis Égal, PLUX.5, 2012, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, September 12, 2012 © Courtesy of Retis/Flickr.

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