Universities ‘seen as a cash cow’ by publishers

Two university managers describe the cost of platform charges as ‘nontransparent’

It is “unacceptable” that publishers are charging university libraries escalating hosting fees, one university librarian has said.

Jisc, which provides network and IT services to the higher education sector, said a growing number of members are complaining about a lack of price transparency from publishers.

Eleanor Craig, content delivery and access librarian at the University of Sussex Library, said: “I can’t tell you how angry these hosting fees make me, it just doesn’t make sense.

“One publisher charges 5% every year on each resource that we’ve bought from them, which means that over 20 years we’ve paid for the resource twice! I think it’s unacceptable. We spend vast amounts of money on these collections and have to keep on spending more to access them.” 

One publisher charges 5% every year on each resource that we’ve bought from them, which means that over 20 years we’ve paid for the resource twice! I think it’s unacceptable
Eleanor Craig, University of Sussex

Such collections are bought as one-off purchases; the costs are either covered by dedicated library budgets or by end-of-year allocations. The hosting fees are often charged as yearly subscriptions – but fluctuating and recurring costs are funded from different budget categories, which makes challenging escalating costs hard.

Jisc has developed a group purchasing scheme for digital archival collections to help reduce the scope for arbitrary pricing. It has also launched a new guide to help libraries negotiate with publishers.

Mike Ager, content purchasing manager at the University of Kent, said: “Once you’ve bought your online resource, there’s not a lot you can do about the ongoing hosting fee.

“I have, on occasion, pushed back really hard and questioned what I’m actually paying for.

“The general retort is that it’s for maintaining and allowing development of the website on an ongoing basis. I wonder if we should be looking at a sector approach to see whether we can demand greater transparency about how much things cost and what exactly we’re paying for.”

Most universities do not have the capacity or the budgets to create their own online platforms. Ager said the sector was under greater financial strain because of Covid, describing attitudes from publishers as “all really grasping”.

Ager said the sector will “seek greater transparency” in order to benchmark costs. “We recognise there are costs associated with running these platforms but it’s about fairness for all rather than the sector being seen as a cash cow. Only when we see the true cost can we establish fairness,” he added.

Read more: Subscription cancellations inevitable if publishers don’t reduce costs, warn library directors

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