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Medical advances typically begin with a study. Now, universities are struggling to afford them


Biologist Terry Van Raay typically spends his days in the lab running different foods through an artificial intestine, trying to uncover the links between gut health and the nervous system. 

But like many scientists, the associate professor of cellular biology at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario has become irate with the business of academic publishing.

“Publishers are charging us to publish our work, then they turn around and ask you to do the peer review [for other researchers’ articles] for free,” said Van Raay. “There are really only five publishers that own [virtually] all the journals and they make billions of dollars. It has to change.” 

Academic publishing is a unique enterprise. Researchers contribute studies, typically for free or paying for the privilege to publish; those draft studies are then peer-reviewed by other unpaid specialists to ensure the material is unique and academically sound. 

After reviewers suggest changes and agree on a suitable version, the final product is published in a for-profit academic journal, which is then sold back to university libraries.

The typical Canadian university library is now spending three-quarters of its budget for new material on journal subscriptions, said the head of a group representing the research institutions. 

Prices to access studies from peer-reviewed journals paid by universities — which are heavily subsidized by taxpayers — have risen more than 400 per cent over the past two decades, according to a study citing Statistics Canada data published in 2021. That’s the latest national information tracking cost increases over time, four specialists said.

Those rising costs have implications far beyond the ivory tower. Academic studies are a lifeblood of knowledge creation: from improved cancer treatments to debates about foreign policy or charting the advances of artificial intelligence, new information enters the public domain through peer-reviewed research.

“On a basic level, this is taxpayers’ money that is being extracted from the higher education system,” Philippe Mongeon, an associate professor of information management at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said of the fees universities pay for journal access. 

“Tuition fees … will be higher because we have to pay the publisher. There are less resources for research and social programs, as the publishers are extracting it, and that makes it harder to solve societal problems, to improve the lives of Canadians.”

Known as the “big five publishers” — Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Sage — control more than half of the global market for scholarly journals, according to a 2021 study (which was published by Wiley).

Officials with those companies say they are providing a crucial service by storing and advancing knowledge, and many say they are working with libraries to keep costs down in a business that has been altered by digitization and other trends.

University of Guelph biologist Terry Van Raay conducts experiments on an artificial gut in order to study the impacts of diets on the nervous system at a lab in Guelph, Ont., in July. Prof. Van Raay is part of an initiative aiming to reduce the power of big publishing companies in the peer review process for scientific studies. (Terry Van Raay)

The typical Canadian university library spends about 75 per cent of its acquisitions budget for new material on journal subscriptions, said Susan Haigh, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), an umbrella group representing this country’s largest university libraries.

Her group’s members spent more than $90 million on subscriptions to the largest journal packages in 2019, she said of her latest available data. 

“The fundamental problem is this: content comes to those publishers ready-made on the backs of research and research funding,” Haigh said. “For the libraries to then have to pay a lot of money to [publishers] is unfortunate.”

Push back from scientists, libraries

Van Raay and his colleague, Prof. Andreas Heyland, are part of a growing trend of researchers trying to wrest control over information from the big publishing firms. 

Their project, Peer Premier, is the first-ever professional peer review service intended to be independent of any journal or publisher, according to the University of Guelph.

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To use the service, an author pays $1,100 to the organization, in contrast to more than $10,000 to publish in some top journals, Heyland said.

Of that money, $300 goes to each of the article’s three independent reviewers and the remaining $200 is used for project administration. Researchers who submit get fulsome comments from the reviewers and leave with an edited, peer-reviewed manuscript that can be submitted elseware for publication, he added. 

Launched in 2021, the initiative is still tiny; undermining the power of the big publishers is “not something that happens quickly,” Heyland said. Peer Premier is not an academic journal onto itself, he added, it’s a way to remove control over the peer review process from publishers. 

‘Entrenched in our ways’

Academics who aren’t involved with the project say it’s one of several interesting initiatives designed to challenge the dominance of the big five.

But two outside experts said they aren’t confident these types of programs will have much success, given how the broader academic world is organized. 

A student carrying a backpack walks in front of a brutalist concrete building under blue sky.
The University of Guelph’s library is pictured in July. University libraries across Canada are grappling with the rising costs of academic journal subscriptions. (University of Guelph)

“Libraries are having a hard time navigating that space between a publisher asking for more money and a community that doesn’t want to lose access to this information,” said Mongeon from Dalhousie University.

The broader academic system disincentivizes researchers from using a project such as Peer Premier and then publishing the peer-reviewed study on a university website or a similar non-profit platform, he added.

“You get a reputation by publishing in top journals,” he said. “If you don’t publish in those journals, it hurts your career.” This makes it harder for university-owned journals or other kinds of peer review processes to gain credibility.

When quality independent journals do pop up, it’s common for big publishers to simply buy them, Mongeon added, noting these companies can boast profit margins of 40 per cent on billions in revenue. “It’s one of the most profitable industries out there.”

A woman in a blue coat looks at a library book inside a university library.
Melinda Richter leafs through a book at a library at the University of Toronto in 2008. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Agnes Grudniewicz, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, studies how hospitals can adopt new cancer research in practice. It’s work largely financed by taxpayers through research grants. 

Ideally, she said she would like to publish her findings in smaller outlets, bypassing the big publishers, especially given their costs — plus their “copy editing is not always great.”

If she didn’t publish in the big journals, she said she would have struggled to get tenure and research money, as citations in prominent outlets still play a big role in those decisions.

“The academy is a hard place to push back,” Grudniewicz said. “We are entrenched in our ways.”

Changing the system would require universities, regulators and funders coming together to reevaluate how academic promotions are granted and how funding is dispersed, she added.

Publishers say they’re safeguarding knowledge

The publishing houses, for their part, say they are providing a crucial service in curating peer-reviewed information, making sure junky science doesn’t enter top journals. And some say they are trying to keep costs down. 

All of the big five publishers denied interview requests, but most responded to written questions.

“We absolutely recognize that library budgets are strained so we work closely with each of our customer institutions to offer them the right, sustainable solutions to support their research goals,” a spokesperson for Elsevier, a company that has been publishing journals for more than 140 years, said via email.

“Elsevier’s average list prices for subscription articles have remained flat over the last 10 years, compared to average increases of around six per cent per annum by other publishers.”

A spokesperson for Springer Nature said the company has more than 2,000 full-time in house editors and partnerships around the world so “our community can publish high quality research for the public to use as quickly as possible.”

Signs in English and Chinese are displayed at a trade publishing event.
Visitors browse vendor exhibits near a display from publisher Springer Nature, one of the big five, at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing in 2017. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

Springer Nature said it supports more than 2.5 million authors publishing open access material — which is free to read for the general public but typically expensive for the writer. It aims to make half of its research free to access for readers by the end of 2024, the spokesperson said via email. 

“The research publishing landscape is in a state of flux — from print-based to digital, and from subscription to open access publishing,” she added. “A successful transition requires investment in systems, technology and resources to support our readers and authors on this journey.”

Caroline Sutton, CEO of STM Association, a trade industry group representing academic publishers, said author satisfaction with the publishing houses, “is growing. But this is a truth that’s been hard to communicate in recent years.”

The business also has long-term costs that many critics don’t consider, she added via email.

“Publishers themselves remain responsible for maintaining the permanent record (the final published article) — in perpetuity,” Sutton said. “And this is incredibly important, considering that science and discovery are iterative and built on previous works.” 


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