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800 European universities ask the EU Commissioner to help them fight the big journals

Competition — Universities Denmark is leading the fight against a publishing industry which earns billions from researchers getting access to their own scientific articles. In a complaint, 800 European universities are now asking the EU competition commissioner to put her foot down.

European universities use an annual DKK 3.14 billion to gain access to scientific articles which their own researchers write, correct and comment.

And even though the university sector has never been under more financial pressure, the prices for access to scientific journals increases every year. But now the universities have had enough.

The European Universities Association (EUA) has filed a complaint asking Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to investigate the pricing and competition in the market for scientific publishing.

“Our hope is that Vestager takes this case and gets the big publishers to comply, just as she has done with giants like Facebook and Google”, says chairman of the universities interest group Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard to Videnskab.dk.

Like a monopoly

The large international publishing houses have stumbled upon an extremely lucrative business model: The universities pay for researchers to both write research articles and edit other people’s articles using the peer-review system. But as soon as the articles are published in a journal, they pay an exorbitant amount to get access to them.

Universities Denmark finds this practice unfair and that it distorts the competition. It is therefore on their initiative that the EUA brings the case to the European Commission. They want the commissioner to put an end to having a small number of international publishers driving up the prices on publications.

“Only a few publishers account for a large part of the market for research publication. This makes for monopoly-like conditions that push up prices. This is deeply problematic,” says Jesper Langergaard in a press release.

Our hope is that Vestager takes this case and gets the big publishers to comply, just as she has done with giants like Facebook and Google
Chairman of Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard to videnskab.dk

EUA represents more than 800 European universities and points in the filing towards eight major issues in the scientific publishing industry.

Their criticism includes the industry’s monopoly-like conditions, where approximately half of all scientific journals are owned by the same five large companies.

And they would also like Margrethe Vestager to take a closer look at the strict confidentiality clauses in the contracts between publishers and universities. The clauses makes it difficult to negotiate with publishers, as universities don’t know what other institutions pay for their access to journals.

Difficult to pursue case

Expert in competition law Christian Bergqvist recognizes the problem. But he is sceptical as to whether universities will get much out of the filing:

“I imagine the Commissioner will respond politely to the enquiry, and perhaps even put an investigation in progress. And this will definitely put pressure on the publishing business. But this is not a strong foundation on which to conduct a case,” says Christian Bergqvist, who is associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

I expect there will be a response to this relatively quickly. The publishers can’t live with this

Associate professor and expert in competition law Christian Bergqvist

According to the associate professor the universities have entered a politically sensitive area, as there are many interests to be balanced out. And it is not illegal to make money from scientific journals.

He points to a similar case in Denmark, where the lawyers’ interest group Danske Advokater in 2016 complained to the competition and consumers’ authority in Denmark over the publisher Karnov’s abuse of its dominant position in statutes. They offered examples of prices increasing by up to 588 per cent.

Like the large scientific journals, Karnov is also owned by a capital fund, which extracts large profits. But the competition and consumer authority would not pursue the case.

While the Commission might not make a formal decision, Christian Bergqvist is convinced that the publishers themselves will respond to the EUA complaint filing:

“I expect there will be a response to this relatively quickly. The publishers can’t live with this. The researchers and the universities are both customers and suppliers at the publishing houses. And as a group, it is easier to generate sympathy for them than lawyers.”

UCPH pays a pretty penny

UCPH pays DKK 65 million a year to have online access to research. The University Post wrote about this at the end of October, when UCPH university librarian and deputy director for the Royal Library Kira Stine Hansen stated:

“This is a monopoly-like situation, which is being exploited with exorbitant annual price increases. The pain threshold is just around the corner.”

This will put pressure on the publishing business, but there is not a strong foundation to conduct a case
Expert in competition law Christian Bergqvist

And associate professor Christian Bergqvist agrees that the journals are excessively priced. But he does not believe that this is only the publishers’ fault:

“It is clearly a major problem. But it is also a problem that the universities themselves are a part of. I feel pressure, for example, to write papers and articles rather than books and to publish in specific journals.”

The universities also have a real opportunity to stop subscribing and paying for the scientific journals according to the associate professor:

“The universities should also look at their own role in this, and what they can do to support, for example, the Open Access system,” says Christian Bergqvist.

Open access

In a report, the EUA estimates that the European universities, by moving to an Open Access system, could save approximately DKK 1.27 billion a year. Money that could go to more research and/or to a publishing system, which is fully based on open access to research.

At present, half of all scientific journals are in the hands of five large companies (RELX Group, Wiley-Blackwell, Nature, SAGE and Taylor & Francis), and they are unlikely to let the EU Commission just take their enormous revenues. RELX Group owns, for example. the largest scientific publisher Elsevier, which in 2017 had an annual profit of DKK 7.7 billion and a 37 per cent profit margin.

Elsevier has for many years been lobbying against the Open Access system, and in both Sweden, Germany, and France, universities have been in conflict with the major publishing houses. It is Elsevier however, that has been tasked with monitoring the European Commission’s Open Science, which is an initiative to develop open access to research in Europe.

This is just one of the factors complicating the conflict between publishers and universities. Now more than 800 European universities are going together in their battle against the profit-maximizing publishers. The question is what Margrethe Vestager can and will do about it.

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