‘Exorbitant’ fees paid to academic publishers better spent on Australian research and education, report finds | Australian education

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Australia’s public research institutions are paying $1bn a year to giant academic publishers, new research shows, amid growing calls for taxpayer money to be redirected away from private enterprises.

The Australia Institute report, released on Wednesday, questioned if more public money should be used for research and education instead of being directed to international academic publishers.

Academic publishes are among the most profitable businesses in the world – raking in massive profit margins approaching 40% – in line with Google and Apple.

The market is dominated by five major houses – Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature and SAGE Publications – and rakes in billions of dollars a year.

The report found Australia’s research institutions and universities spent $300m on journal subscriptions annually, totalling $1bn when additional fees and publication charges were added.

The “exorbitant” fees are charged to institutions and research groups in order to access research that the public largely funds, the report said. One-off access for a single article costs about $50.

Dr Kristen Scicluna, a postdoctoral research fellow and author of the report, said research was being “hamstrung” without appropriate funding and money could be better directed elsewhere.

“This amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars every year – much of it public money – spent on publication and subscription, not research and discovery,” she said.

Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, has proposed a world-first open access model, recently finalised for the federal government, that would provide a centralised digital library for all Australians to access research papers free of charge, as long as they had a MyGov account or were in education.

Scicluna said Foley’s plan was a “great start” but did not go far enough, instead pressing for reform as to how research grants were awarded.

“It doesn’t do much to disrupt entrenchment publishers have on academic workflow,” she said.

Scicluna’s proposal includes revising grant criteria to reward publication in open access journals that have lower publishing fees and trialling a lottery-based grant system to reduce the power of major journals.

Australia’s two major public grant bodies – the Australian Research Council (Arc) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – require publications to be open access, with stipulations in place. But receiving a grant depends on an academic’s track record, typically based on whether they have published in prestigious journals.

Scicluna said until grant conditions offered academics alternative avenues for promotion, private publishers would continue to benefit.

The lottery system has been trialled in New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Australia and Switzerland to some success. Grant applications are first screened for eligibility, then awarded randomly to applicants considered equal, to reduce the emphasis on a researcher’s publication record.

“Publishers can just keep increasing prices, so [the] funding universities get through the government to cover the costs of research, salaries and equipment end[s] up going to library subscription fees.”

In Australia, the Council of Australian University Librarians has taken the lead on negotiating open-access agreements on behalf of institutions. The council’s executive director, Jane Angel, said the need for reform came down to equity.

Angel said not advancing open access particularly hindered innovation among people without access to paywalled information – primarily, those outside educational institutions.

“That either predicates that innovation comes or is perpetuated among those who are tertiary educated, or suggests that this is where we expect to find innovation,” she said.

“That is not democratic or progressive, or indicative of the Australia [the education minister] Jason Clare wants where ‘no one is held back, and no one is left behind’.”

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