Why are Universities Canceling Subscriptions to Publishing Houses?

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Hua saw Zhao looking frustrated at the library computer.

She walked over to him. “What is troubling you, Zhao?”

“I desperately need this article for my research” replied Zhao, “but our library no longer subscribes to this journal.”

Hua frowned, “I heard that subscriptions to that publishing house have become too expensive, also we are not the only country to do this.”

Zhao put his head in his hands. “Why are they canceling their subscriptions? This article is key to my research. What am I going to do now?”

This conversation is not only happening in China. Other universities around the world, including Norway, Sweden, Germany, and North America are also canceling their subscriptions to large publishing houses. Is this move going to hinder research?

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Menace of Research Locked Behind Pay Walls

Zhao: “Researchers need access to papers in order to advance their own field of research. Not having access to the literature means not knowing what has been discovered before. We will waste time and resources re-inventing the wheel.”

Hua: “I agree. It also means fewer citations and exposure for those who have managed to publish their work.”

Zhao: “I tried to buy the article for myself, but the cost of a single article is too high. I wonder if I can find it on another website.”

Hua: “Another website may not be legal. That’s the problem with making access to research unaffordable. It drives illegal access to journal articles. Libraries do not support illegal access to articles, but they are aware that desperate students resort to this practice.”

Universities are Canceling Journal Subscriptions

Zhao: “You said China is not the only country canceling subscriptions to large publishers.”

Hua: “Yes, I read that Norwegian institutions – who paid approximately 10 million euros in subscriptions in 2018 – complain that they pay twice for journal articles. They pay to read them on the publisher’s website and then again, to provide their articles on their platforms as open access to their academics.”

Zhao: “A publishing giant like Elsevier, for example, hosts approximately 2500 academic journals. Cancellation of a subscription to such a publisher is disastrous for researchers. It takes away a huge resource.”

Hua: “Well, universities have tried to negotiate a better deal for Elsevier subscriptions, but have been unsuccessful. Elsevier’s response is that they cannot supply ‘two services for the price of one’. They claim that the demands made by the universities are unsustainable for them as a publisher. More universities are canceling their large bundle subscriptions and opting for smaller subscriptions to a select number of journals that they need. Florida State University, for example, announced that they will only subscribe to a subset of the most-needed journals published by Elsevier. They can no longer afford to pay the high subscription rates for the whole Elsevier suite.”

Zhao: “The days of being able to afford subscriptions to an entire suite of publications for a discounted price appear to be coming to an end.”

Monopoly in Publishing

Hua: “Here in China, the large publishing house known as Zhiwang, has been accused of taking advantage of its monopoly by charging sky-high subscription rates.”

Zhao: “Most of the articles I read are published by Zhiwang.”

Hua: “Exactly, and researchers are angry because Zhiwang received state support to become established. It is part of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure and the central government supported them with the aim of improving research in China. Universities and schools have started canceling their subscriptions to Zhiwang since price negotiations with this publisher have been unsuccessful too. Maybe we should boycott these journals.”

Zhao: “What concerns me, is that their monopoly runs even deeper than simply the cost of access to research. Authors aim to publish in highly acclaimed journals, with high ratings. Authors need this to ensure tenureship and enhance their career prospects. These highly accredited journals are often part of a large publisher’s suite of journal articles. Therefore, this makes boycotting them very difficult.”


Hua: “The production of articles seems to be an unfair process. Researchers do the work and write up a paper. Reviewers and editors ensure that the work is worthy of publication. However, the publishing house receives the profits. The publishing community understands that there are costs involved in publishing their work. However, there seems to be an unfair advantage to the publisher. Do you agree?”

Zhao: “I do agree. Some students argue that journal articles are public resources which should be disseminated. Therefore, they feel that large publishers should use a business model that protects the rights of researchers and writers.”

Hua: “You will be pleased to know that there is a move to make access to research free. So, have you heard of Plan S?

Zhao: “No, what is Plan S?”

Hua: Plan S is where a group of funders have said that if they fund your work, you may only publish in open-access journals. This is part of a drive to make research accessible to everyone, including researchers from poor countries.”

Zhao: “That sounds like a good initiative. I think the cancellation of large publisher subscriptions by universities, in addition to the implementation of Plan S may boost the drive to open-access research. This may be good news for us, but how will paid-subscription journals cover their costs?”

Hua: “Universities and also publishers all over the world are trying to figure this out. They meet and discuss ways to make research more accessible, without causing the publishers to go bankrupt. They are also talking about green or gold open access. This is where an institution will pay to publish a paper. This way the publisher can cover their costs and researchers can also access articles feely.”

Does it concern you that universities are canceling their bulk subscriptions to large academic publishers? Do let us know in the comments below.


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