Falling Canadian dollar raises longstanding issue of journal costs

OTTAWA, February 3, 2016 – Research libraries in universities across the country are experiencing severe budget pressures owing to the weakening Canadian dollar combined with the extraordinarily high costs of international scholarly journals.


Academic libraries strive to provide their university’s faculty, researchers and students with broad access to international scholarship, recognizing that reported research is the critical starting point to inform new research, which in turn leads to new knowledge that advances science, culture and society. Much of the world’s research is reported in articles published in journals, most of which are accessed online by subscription.

A typical research library subscribes to tens of thousands of journal titles.  Subscription-based journals are increasingly owned by a small number of international publishers, and are usually sold to libraries as bundled packages (similar to cable television packages). Individual journal subscriptions can sometimes be purchased, but choosing to license only a selection of titles from a collection often results in negligible savings.

Not all journals require subscriptions for access:  open access (OA) journals operate using a different business model and rely on other means of financial support. There are currently approximately 34,550 peer-reviewed scholarly journals being published worldwide, of which about 30% are open access; but they provide only about 12% of available peer-reviewed articles.

Journal costs

Journal subscriptions come at a steep price. In 2011, CARL’s 29 academic research libraries paid CAD$167,289,860 collectively for subscriptions to electronic content (a large part of which is journals). By 2014, expenditures had reached CAD$215,224,792. Over 90% of these subscriptions are paid in foreign currencies. This year, given rising prices, the falling dollar, and libraries’ consequent diminished purchasing power, these same subscriptions will likely cost over $260M.

Faced with projected budgetary shortfalls, university libraries consult with their researchers in an effort to trim their subscription costs and offset their reduced purchasing capacity. The options they have include cancelling bundle subscriptions in favour of buying access to individual high-value journals (though this may not be a cost-effective strategy for many libraries); cancelling bundles or titles and obtaining articles upon demand from open repositories, other libraries, or vendors; or accessing journals via “aggregator” packages that typically do not include the most recent 12 months’ issues of the journal.

In short, there is a perfect storm of factors at play:

  • 90-95% of journal subscriptions are paid in foreign currencies, leading to huge deficits when the Canadian dollar is low;
  • Research library budgets are steady or declining;
  • Subscriptions are primarily sold as bundles where only a fraction of the bundled content are leading journals;
  • Bundles often require a multi-year commitment, giving libraries little control to rework budgets in crisis times;
  • University faculty require access to leading research in order to fully participate in the research cycle;
  • A few international publishers own an increasingly large portion of the journal market and are demanding inflated prices.

The heart of the issue: Inflated journal pricing

While the falling dollar may have precipitated the current crisis, library budgets have been under growing stress for some time. Journal costs have been rising steadily in recent years. EBSCO, one of the industry’s largest distributors in journal subscriptions, reports that between 2011 and 2015 academic serials prices went up 5-7% per year, approximately 25% over this 4-year period. Canadian academic libraries have been well served by national and regional licensing consortia, who have somewhat mitigated these increases to about 3-5% annually. Although this year’s projected increase is consistent with past years’ increases, when combined with the exchange rate, this could mean an increase of 20% or higher – in one year – for Canadian institutions.

Recent research shows that journal prices are much higher than the true cost of publishing. The top five publishers, who control over 50% of the market and above 70% in some disciplines have profit margins in the order of 28-38.9% in their companies’ scholarly journal divisions, bringing them in close proximity to pharmaceuticals industry leader Pfizer (42%), and vastly outpacing corporate giants such as Disney (14%) or Toyota (7%). Meanwhile, researchers are finding that open access publishing costs are far lower costs for publishing research. It is becoming increasingly clear that the subscription-based publishing system is simply unsustainable.

New models for the dissemination of scholarship, including open access, are needed. Without investment in alternative means of scholarly communication, the widespread cancellation of journals across Canadian institutions and resulting loss of access to existing research could severely impede Canada’s scientific and scholarly contributions.

“The situation is a problem that all Canadian universities need to address,” said Martha Whitehead, CARL President, who is Vice-Provost and University Librarian at Queen’s University. “We want to provide the leading international journals for our researchers but we also need to signal to publishers that there are limits on the public funds that research libraries—the main market for such journals—are willing and able to spend.”

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CARL (the Canadian Association of Research Libraries) members include Canada’s twenty-nine largest university libraries as well as Library and Archives Canada and NRC-Knowledge Management. Enhancing research and higher education are at the heart of its mission. CARL promotes effective and sustainable scholarly communication, and public policy that enables broad access to scholarly information.

For more information:

Susan Haigh, Executive Director
613-482-9344 x 101