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A Global Transition to Open Access May Be Stalemated by Standoffs between Publishers and University Libraries

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Journal sales, November 30, 2006 | © Courtesy of HeatherLWilliams/Flickr.

On the background of Springer Nature’s stalled stock market launch, global journal publishers, such as Elsevier, could be digging in their heels in their negotiations with university associations over periodical subscription deals, as revenues and profit growth rates sag, while arguably slowing the expansion of the Open Access sector.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


A closer look into the annual report for 2017 of RELX Group, to which Elsevier, a globally operating journal publisher belongs, reveals that while its scientific, technical and medical analytics business remains the most important source of its revenue, its growth rate was found to be 2% only, while the adjusted operating profit for this segment was 3% for this period. This contrasts with the respective revenue and profit growth of RELX Group of 9% and 11% between 2016 and 2017 in the risk and business analytics sector, while also significantly lagging behind to the underlying growth in revenue and adjusted operating profit rates of 8% for both indicators, net of currency and acquisitions or disposals effects, in this sector.

Whereas in 2017 Elsevier has launched 26 new scientific journals, only some of these were in Open Access. Moreover, though its Open Access business has been demonstrating double-digit growth in 2017, with 27,000 articles published in Open Access, which makes Elsevier into one of the more important publishers in this sector, only 1,890 of its journals offer Open Access publishing options, which makes for about 76% of circa 2,500 journals it reportedly publishes. In estimated article-level terms, however, for Elsevier Open Access represents only slightly above 6% of its article output that amounted to over 430,000 papers for 2017. In other words, despite the steps that Elsevier makes in the direction of Open Access, the subscription-based model accounts for close to 94% of its journal-related revenue streams.

Both the overwhelming reliance of Elsevier on journal subscription deals for its revenues and their lower single-digit growth in the scientific sector may be the explanatory factors behind the uncompromising position this global company has demonstrated in its negotiations with the Projekt DEAL, a German consortium of scientific organizations. As of July 5, 2018, these negotiations have been suspended by the Projekt DEAL representatives over rising subscription fees, unmet demands in relation to Open Access and the reticence of Elsevier to enter into a nation-wide publish-and-read agreement in this country. While this can lead German universities and libraries to be cut off from Elsevier’s online journal databases, this standoff has significant implications for the possibility of a Europe-wide flip, or transition, to Open Access as the dominant journal publishing model.

However, Elsevier’s 2017 data indicate that, in spite of its rapid progress, Open Access is likely to continue to take up a relatively marginal share of profits and revenues that large international publishers derive from the journal sector in the years to come. A similar opinion is expressed in Roger C. Schonfeld’s blog article, published on June 26, 2018, in which he casts doubt on the realism of European policy targets, as concerns transitioning to Open Access, as well as on the momentum behind Open Access, as far as it can relate to big publishers, such as Springer Nature.

More specifically, Springer Nature’s cancellation of initial public offering on the financial market may also be because of its relatively weak revenue performance, which may be limiting the enthusiasm of journal publishers toward Open Access as well.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Journal sales, November 30, 2006 | © Courtesy of HeatherLWilliams/Flickr.

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