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Libraries stand up to publishers’ tricks

But defiant Publishers Association calls claims oversimplistic

Research librarians are warning publishers of academic journals that subscription costs must drop now that they are being paid to publish open-access articles.

Research Libraries UK, a union of 34 academic libraries, is set to ask publishers to disclose the subscription fees they charge to universities. Transparency is vital if open-access policies are to succeed, librarians have said. A position paper, expected before Christmas, will also ask publishers to provide a rebate on subscriptions to so-called hybrid journals, which charge article-processing charges as well as library subscriptions—a practice known as double dipping. RLUK will also present its position to the Russell Group on 4 December.

“It’s very hard on universities if they are being asked to pay a subscription and are then paying APCs too,” says Stella Butler, chairwoman of RLUK and university librarian at the University of Leeds. “We’re not denying that publishers are businesses with a profit line. We’re not asking not to pay.”

RLUK’s paper will say that libraries want individual rebates based on the amount in APCs that they have paid to a journal. Publishers have said that surplus revenues made by hybrid journals will be used to reduce subscription fees for the journals globally, but Phil Sykes, university librarian at the University of Liverpool, is not convinced. “We don’t see how that can possibly be verified,” he says. Even a fee reduction at a national level is “not good enough”, adds Butler. “I can’t imagine that they haven’t got systems that tell them how much universities are paying them for subscription and how much they pay in APCs.”

In a statement sent to Research Fortnight, Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, says that “some of the calls for an abrupt change in approach are rather oversimplistic”. He adds that they “ignore the challenges inherent in this transitional phase of academic publishing” following the government’s implementation of open-access recommendations from an expert group chaired by Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University.

Sykes says: “The Finch deal was that publishers, universities and the government should share the costs of open access. We don’t feel that that’s what’s happening at the moment.” Sykes, who is working on RLUK’s position paper, says that to continue working with publishers on open-access policies, “we do need frankness about costs”. Librarians sign nondisclosure clauses in their subscription deals with publishers, preventing them from comparing the rates they pay with those paid by librarians at other universities.

In a report published on 3 September, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee described this clause as a “significant obstacle” to librarians’ negotiations with publishers. There is a “lack of transparency and competition in the market, which is deeply concerning”, according to the report. The government and Research Councils UK were due to publish their response to the report as Research Fortnight went to press.

The Finch group estimated that universities paid £150 million in journal subscriptions in 2010. This market is to be investigated in research commissioned by funders including RCUK and the Wellcome Trust. The project will analyse trends in APCs in the UK and internationally, and determine future costs. The work is expected to be published in early 2014.

Universities need to publish at least 45 per cent of their research outputs in open-access journals between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014, a target set by RCUK as a condition of receiving a block grant to help them cover APCs.

Librarians at several universities say they are on track to hit the target, but that their rate of open-access publishing must increase. “We’re probably going through one of those curves where it’s a slow start and then there’s a fairly steep climb once it gets going,” says Butler. Paul Ayris, director of planning and resources at University College London, adds: “It’s been a rush.”