An Epidemic of Journal Subscription Cancellations

Failed negotiations, budget constraints… And what about the researchers?

Since the start of 2014, an epidemic of cancellations of scientific journal subscriptions has come crashing down on researchers in France and elsewhere. We take a look at the carnage, whose principal victims are researchers and students.

Since the start of 2014, an epidemic of cancellations of scientific journal subscriptions has come crashing down on researchers in France and elsewhere. We take a look at the carnage, whose principal victims are researchers and students.

This article is also available in French: "Epidémie de désabonnements aux revues scientifiques".

Ready to fight! CC BY-NC-SA Tamàs Mézàros /

“UPMC vs Science. Fight !”

First of all, the growing disagreement between publishers and groups in charge of negotiations has crystalized these exchanges. A glaring example, and not the least of them, is the case of “UPMC vs. Science”. This week, the University Pierre and Marie Curie (UPMC) announced it was canceling its subscription to the journal Science. According to UPMC’s website, the publisher of the scholarly society AAAS wanted to impose an increase of +100% on the price of its subscriptions (later reduced to 47%).

“Faced with the publisher’s refusal to understand UPMC’s situation, the inelegance of its behavior (access to Science was cut before the end date of our 2013 contract) and to avoid giving any sign of encouragement of such practices to other publishers, cancelling our subscription was necessary.”

Emeline Dalsorg of UPMC explains that “AAAS considers Science the most important journal – which is not completely false. The annual increase is usually on the order of 4 or 5%, which is a lot, but still more reasonable. However, AAAS—which has never accepted to negotiate with the consortium Couperin, because it applies different pricing to different establishments—equipped itself with a very aggressive commercial approach. Our access to Science was cut several days after the announcement of our cancellation. That is, almost a month before the end of our 2013 contract!”

Meanwhile, Paris Descartes founders

At the same time, the University of Paris 5 (Paris Descartes) was cancelling several of its journal subscriptions for budgetary reasons. 34 titles are affected by the university’s cancellations, including the journals of the Nature group. Also concerned are titles of the publishers Wiley and Taylor & Francis, as well as access to Elsevier’s database, Scopus. A total of practically 3,000 journals!


“Couperin vs. APS”

Updated 30/01/14 at 17:00:  The negotiations have resulted in an agreement and the physicists will have access to the leading journals of the American Physical Society.

In France, the consortium for negotiation, Couperin, seems to be encountering similar situations in a significant number of cases this year. Further proof is the saga of “Couperin vs. APS”. At the end of December, physicists at a large number of French institutions received an email stating the positions of Couperin and of the American Physical Society concerning the ongoing negotiations around subscriptions to Physical Review journals, leaders in the field. Once again, pricing changes are at the origin of the conflict. For the moment, the opponents are at a stalemate, both holding firm in their position.

The APS case is complex, with the publisher stating that it is not asking for an increase in overall price, but a balancing of costs between small and large institutes, such that the latter should take on more of the publishing cost. An honorable intention, if that’s what it is, but from which leads to increases for certain French institutions, reaching 33% for the University of Angers and up to 40% for others.

And elsewhere?

The epidemic doesn’t stop at the French border. In Belgium, too, the pricing proposals of APS are stuck. A petition has gathered 440 signatures since 27 December, demanding reasonable fees for Franco-Belgian universities.

It’s the same fight across the Atlantic. At the beginning of the year, the University of Montreal announced it would be cancelling its subscription to 1,142 journals of the publisher Wiley Online Library by the end of January. The university explains its decision with three main arguments: prices that rise every year from 3 to 6%, ever-increasing budget constraints, and unequal pricing structure between establishments. “Since 1986, the budget devoted to periodicals at large, North American universities has increased four times faster than inflation,” their site reveals—pace that could not be maintained over the medium or long term, in any case.

And what about the researchers?

The situation is worrying. One wonders what researchers and students will be able to work with in 2014 if the situation doesn’t improve quickly. A worried physicist confided in me at the end of December that the consortium was wrong to consider APS the “bad guy” in the same way as other publishers who are more known for this reputation.

Scientists need access to publications. It is troubling to see such situations end up in bilateral disagreement and subscription cancellations en masse. The mission of consortiums is to protect researchers by negotiating for fair prices. When conflicts like this occur, they expect to have the support of researchers, which is not always the case. “Some researchers contacted us after the Science subscription was cancelled,” says Emeline Dalsorg. “When we explain to them, they understand the decision that was made and try to access publications via other subscriptions, like those of the CNRS.” In other cases, the consortium’s refusal gets much less support from researchers. On the contrary, they express disillusioned incomprehension, even a feeling of betrayal toward the negotiators who cut off their access to journals indispensable to carrying out quality research.

Academic schizophrenia?

Multiple personalities can be seen among institutions and their representatives on several points underlying the current crisis. They want to support open access, but continue to publish in the most prestigious journals. None want to remain dependent on all-powerful publishers, who can impose their prices under the pretext of being indispensible. Nevertheless, not one seems willing to modify its evaluation criteria that push researchers into the race for prestigious publications. When will there be a debate where all parties concerned can express their point of view?


Updated 30/01/14 at 17:00:  The negotiations between Couperin and APS have resulted in an agreement and French physicists will have access to the leading journals of the American Physical Society.