In the past, universities and research institutions paid large sums of money to publishers for subscriptions to scientific journals in which their own articles appeared. Publicly funded research therefore disappeared behind a paywall. The academic community felt that this had to change.

So today, there is much more open access: universities still pay the publishers, but the articles are available to everyone for free. But it is not exactly getting any cheaper.

Billions in profits

Recently, the research platform for journalists Follow the Money highlighted the millions spent on open access every year. In particular, exorbitant amounts of money flow into the ‘golden route’, whereby institutions pay publishers to make entire journals directly accessible online, rather than via a library archive, for example.

According to a recent study by the University of Groningen, publishers’ profits run into the billions. In terms of profit percentages, they rank just below Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The CEOs of Wolters Kluwer and RELX, the parent companies of Wiley, Springer and Elsevier, among others, earn an average of more than 7.5 million euros a year (about 40 times the salary of the Dutch prime minister).

Lack of transparency

These large publishers are not transparent about their costs and revenues. This is a thorny issue, says Darco Jansen, policy officer for open access at Universities of The Netherlands (UNL). “Research funders all over the world, including the Dutch Research Council, have been calling for more clarity for years.” They have joined forces in the collaborative venture Coalitions.

The actual content of a scientific publication is, of course, provided by the researchers. Jansen: “But everything else isn’t. So we want to know exactly how much money goes into reviewing, editing, formatting and promoting a publication. Publishers are currently unable or unwilling to provide this level of insight into their books.”


According to the UNL policy officer, criticism has been mounting in the European academic community in recent years. “The fact that publishers like Elsevier are now part of an even bigger company like RELX, which is driven by shareholders and profit maximisation, is controversial. Is it still appropriate for us to spend public money on their products? Are the prices they charge fair? There’s a lot of debate about that.”

Jeroen Sondervan, policy officer at the Dutch Research Council, agrees. “Prices continue to rise, and we keep hearing about higher and higher profits. Being dependent on parties like that just isn’t tenable.”

43 million

According to Follow the Money, universities spend a total of 62 million euros a year on open access. But this does not tell the whole story, explains Darco Jansen of UNL. “Universities spend about 43 million euros, and the rest comes from other research institutions.” Part of that money is still being spent on regular reader subscriptions. “Universities have been spending about the same amount every year on scientific publications and open access for a long time.”

Diamond route

One option currently being explored to reduce dependence on for-profit publishers is the diamond route, whereby the academic community is attempting to take on the role of publisher itself. “This approach is popular all over Europe”, explains Jansen. “But the question is whether it’s really going to be any cheaper. Because we don’t have the capacity and scale for that at the moment. We’re probably quite a few years away from this being a real alternative.”

A different publishing system also calls for a different perspective on how research is valued, says Sondervan (Dutch Research Council). “The Journal Impact Factor – the points system we use to rate journals – is used by large publishers to justify their exclusivity, monopoly positions and high costs. This should be given less weight.”

The publishing process also needs to be overhauled, argues the policy officer: “The traditional tasks that are now often the sole preserve of a journal could, for example, be carried out by scientists working together. This would give researchers and institutions more autonomy.”

This may not be easy, he continues. “Three years ago, the Dutch Research Council awarded a start-up grant to, a diamond open-access publishing platform. So far, 31 journals have signed up, so they now publish on an independent platform. That’s fantastic, but they have to build their own network and do their own distribution and marketing. They can’t benefit from a publisher’s existing infrastructure. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Pros and cons

In a recently published proposal, COAlition S sets out ways in which the academic community should take on a bigger role in open-access publishing. They hope that responses to an online questionnaire, which will be online until the end of November, will give them a clearer picture of what scientists expect from open access in the near future.

We need to weigh up the pros and cons, concludes Jansen. “Firstly, we need clarity from publishers to assess whether they are charging fair prices for their services. And if we don’t want to pay those prices, we then need to prove that we can do it ourselves at a lower cost. Until that happens, we won’t be able to make an informed decision.”

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