U of A avoids cutting journal subscriptions despite rising costs

While University of Alberta students may be able to download scholarly articles seemingly for free, the costs of providing these articles are not only substantial — they’re rising.

Journal subscription prices rise with an inflation rate of about 6 per cent every year, forcing many universities, including the University of Alberta, to make decisions between keeping and cutting subscriptions. This year, the University of Calgary cut 1,600 academic journal subscriptions, collectively worth about $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the number of subscriptions at the U of A has actually increased by 19,243 from 2015 to 2016.

The U of A is in a different situation from the U of C, according to Gerald Beasley, Vice-Provost and Chief Librarian at the U of A. This is because the university monitors journal use with surveys and student advisory committees to determine which journals to keep and which to cut. The U of A’s numerical increase in subscriptions was in part due to library revitalizing part of their online journal hosting service and increasing the number of available titles counted.

“We regularly take the pulse, take the temperature of the community as to what’s important for them,” Beasley said. “(The library staff) are always bringing in expert advice, so we’re always listening to that.”

Academic journal subscriptions tend to come in bundles and are priced by negotiations made either collectively with other Canadian universities, or individually, where a university negotiates with a distributor one-on-one. Five companies dominate the distribution market, allowing them to increase subscription prices by 6 per cent each year — well above market inflation rate of around 1.5 per cent. This system, according to Beasley, is broken, and requires change.

“(Journal distributors are) making as much money as say, Big Pharma,” said Beasley. “They’re in that kind of 30 to 40 per cent range of profit margin.”

One of the ways the U of A has tried to raise awareness about journal costs is by hosting their subscription expenditures on the Dataverse platform, where they have documented the prices they have paid for bundles, individual journals, and databases since 2014. In 2016, the U of A paid approximately $1.2 million for access to the Wiley-Blackwell Online Journals bundle — which had only cost $966,000 in 2015. The university has also explored alternatives to subscription-based journals through the Education and Research Archive, which hosts over 30 open-access journals that do not require payments to access content. The university encourages scholars to submit work to the archive, and supports journals looking to become open-access, Beasley said.

“I think (the U of A) is kind of a vanguard,” Beasley said. “We have a little bit of leadership in terms of being transparent about these things.”

As far as finding a sustainable way to keep academic resources accessible for all, Beasley believes the process will be strenuous, but necessary.

“I would say we have a multi-task year ahead of us, if we work both hands,” Beasley said. “We need to understand that the scholarly communication system … relies heavily on subscription payments for academic research. That’s the system; we’re going to work with that.”