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Though Journal Subscription Deal Cancellations Increase in Number, Open Access Solutions Remain Marginal

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Openaire-COAR Conference 2014, Athens, Greece, May 21, 2014 | © Courtesy of cziwkga/Flickr.

For many universities unbundling their journal subscription deals can yield significant cost reductions, which, however, can solidify the market shares of large publishers and slow the growth of the Open Access sector, especially as concerns Gold Open Access journals.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


As university libraries scrutinize their yearly journal subscription deals, the unbundling of these agreements for the purpose of reducing the number of titles subscribed can provide significant subscription discounts for expenses that can exceed 1 million USD on a yearly basis for some institutions. While in North America circa 24 libraries have either unbundled or cancelled their subscription deals with large publishers, it remains to be seen whether academic and research institutions internationally will be following this lead, even though Sweden and France provide recent cancellation examples. Considering the overall size of the global academic publishing market, in 2016 and 2017 additional subscription deal cancellations continue to be in single digits in Canada and the United State, while totaling 5 and 7 institutions for the respective periods.

Moreover, as countries and institutions leverage their ability to use interlibrary loans for accessing paywall-protected publications, this may promote the subscription deal unbundling momentum, as library budgets become exhausted. In other words, university libraries show the signs of demand elasticity as they are increasingly not willing or able to pay any price for accessing subscription-based publications. At the same time, platforms for searching for or sharing academic articles, such as ResearchGate, may not necessarily amount to a shock to the publishing market, as not all publishers are likely to allow unbundling their subscription deals, international academic institutions are likely to be exposed to the risk of fluctuating currency valuations and hardball negotiations tactics do not always succeed.

In other words, on a per-journal basis comprehensive journal subscription deals, whether renegotiated or not, provide value for money in many cases, which can reinforce the market positioning of large publishers. By contrast, by 2016 scholarly articles in either immediate or delayed Open Access have constituted between 20% and 25% of papers indexed by the Scopus database. Moreover, recent data indicate that, whereas the market share of Green Open Access, which involves subscription-based access for titled published in last 1 or 2 years and Open Access archives, had remained relatively stable between 2008 and 2016, both Gold and hybrid Open Access, which provide immediate article access but can also involve article processing charges or at-cost subscription fees respectively, have increased their market share from close to 10% and 2% respectively in the years 2010-2012 to approximately 15% and 7% for each sector in 2016.

While this growth dynamics in the Open Access sector has set the stage for recent subscription contract disputes or stand-offs, such as in Germany, it remains to be seen whether various countries will accomplish their planned transitions to Open Access as a default scientific publication option, especially as closed-access articles have accounted for over 75% of Scopus’ catalogue in 2016. While national, regional and global alliances, such as OA2020, are calling to the effectuate a transition to 100% of Open Access, library budget constraints may stymie these efforts and increase the share of unbundled subscription deals.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Openaire-COAR Conference 2014, Athens, Greece, May 21, 2014 | © Courtesy of cziwkga/Flickr.

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