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‘No free labor’ – we agree.

[NOTE: The introductory sentence to this blog was changed on 27 June to provide clarification]

Last week members of the University of California* released a Call to Action to ‘Champion change in journal negotiations’ which references the April 2018 Declaration of Rights and Principles to Transform Scholarly Communication.  This states as one of the 18 principles:

No free labor. Publishers shall provide our Institution with data on peer review and editorial contributions by our authors in support of journals, and such contributions shall be taken into account when determining the cost of our subscriptions or OA fees for our authors.”

Well, this is interesting. At Cambridge we have been trying to look at this specific issue since late last year.

The project

Our goal was to have a better understanding of the interaction between publisher and researcher. The (not very imaginatively named) Data Gathering Project is a project to support the decision making of the Journal Coordination Scheme in relation to subscription to, and use of, academic journal literature across Cambridge.

What we have initially found is that the data is remarkably difficult to put together. Cambridge University does not use bibliometrics as a means of measuring our researchers, so we do not subscribe to SciVal, but we have access to Scopus. But Scopus does not pick up Arts and Humanities publications particularly well, so it will always be a subset of the whole.

Some information that we thought would be helpful simply isn’t. We do have an institutional Altmetric account, so we were able to pull a report from Altmetric of every paper with a Cambridge author held in that database.  But Altmetric does not give a publisher view – we would have to extract this using doi prefixes or some other system. 

Cambridge uses Symplectic Elements to record publications from which, for very complicated reasons, we are unable to obtain a list of publishers with whom we publish. As part of the subscription we have access to the new analysing product, Dimensions. However, as far as we have managed to see, Dimensions does not break down by publisher (it works at the more granular level of journal), and seems to consider anything that is in the open domain (regardless of licence) to be ‘open access’. So figures generated here come with a heavy caveat.

We are also able to access the COUNTER usage statistics for our journals with the help of  the Library eresources team. However these include downloads for backfiles and for open access articles, so the numbers are slightly inflated, making a ‘cost per download’ analysis of value against subscription cost inaccurate.

We know how much we spend on subscriptions (spoiler alert: a lot). We need to take into consideration our offsetting arrangements with some publishers – something we are taking an active look at currently anyway.

Reaching out to the publishing community

So to supplement the aggregated information we have to hand, we have reached out to those publishers our researchers publish with in significant quantities to ask them for the following data on Cambridge authors: Peer Reviewing, Publishing, Citing, Editing, and Downloading.

This is exactly what the University of California is demanding. One of the reasons we need to ask publishers for peer review information is because it is basically hidden work. Aggregating systems like Publons do help a bit, although the Cambridge count of reviewers in the system is only 492 which is only a small percentage of the whole. Publons was bought out by Clarivate Analytics (which was Thompson Reuters before this and ISI before that) a year ago. We did approach Clarivate Analytics for some data about our peer reviewing, but declined to pay the eye watering quoted fee.

What have we received?

Contrary to our assumptions, many of the publishers responded saying that this information is difficult to compile because it is held on different systems and that multiple people would need to be contacted. Sometimes this is because publishers are responsible for the publication of learned society journals so information is not stored centrally.  They also fed back that much of the data is not readily available in a digestible format. 

Some publishers have responded with data on Cambridge peer reviewers and editors, usage statistics, and citation information. A big thank you to Emerald, SAGE, Wiley, the Royal Society and eLife. We are in active correspondence with Hindawi and PLOS. [STOP PRESS: SpringerNature provided their data 30 minutes after this blog went live, so thanks to them as well].

However, a number of publishers have not responded to our requests and one in particular would like to have a meeting with us before releasing any information.

Findings so far

The brief for the project was to ‘understand how our researchers interact with the literature’.  While we wrote the brief ourselves, we have come to realise it is actually very vague. We have tried to gather any data we can to start answering this question.

What the data we have so far is helping us understand is how much is being spent on APCs outside the central management of the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC). The OSC manages the block grants from the RCUK (now UKRI) and the Charities Open Access Fund, but does not look after payments for open access for research funded by, say the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the NIH. This means that there is a not insignificant amount of extra expenditure on top of that  coordinated by the OSC. These amounts are extremely difficult to ascertain as observed in 2014.

We already collect and report on how much the Office of Scholarly Communication has spent on APCs since 2013. However some prepayment deals makes the data difficult to analyse because of the way the information is presented to us. For example, Cambridge began using the Wiley Dashboard in the middle of the year with the first claim against it on 6 July 2016, so information after that date is fuzzy.

The other issue with comparing how much a publisher has received in APCs and how much the OSC has paid (to determine the difference) is dates. We have already talked at length about date problems in this space. But here the issue is publisher provided numbers are based on calendar years. Our reporting years differ – RCUK reports from April to March and COAF from October to September, so pulling this information together is difficult.

Our current approach to understanding the complete expenditure on APCs, apart from analysing the data being provided by (some) publishers, is to establish all of the suppliers to whom the OSC has paid an APC and obtain the supplier number. This list of supplier numbers can then be run against the whole University to identify payments outside the OSC.

This project is far from straightforward. Every dataset we have will require some enhancement. We have published a short sister post on what we have learned so far about organising data for analysis. But we are hoping over the next couple of months to start getting a much clearer idea of what Cambridge is contributing into the system – in terms of papers, peer review and editorial work in addition to our subscriptions and APCs. We need more evidence based decision making for negotiation.


* There has been some discussion in listservs about who is behind the Call to Action and the Declaration. Thanks to Jeff MacKie-Mason, University Librarian and Professor, School of Information and Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, we are happy to clarify:

  • The Declaration is by the faculty senate’s library committee – University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication (UCOLASC)
  • The Call to Action is by the University of California’s Systemwide Library and Scholarly Information Advisory Committee, UCOLASC, and the UC Council of University Librarians, who: “seek to engage the entire UC academic community, and indeed all stakeholders in the scholarly communication enterprise, in this journey of transformation”.

Published 26 June 2018 (amended 27 June 2018)
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley & Katie Hughes
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Observations on a data gathering project

The Office of Scholarly Communication provides information, advice and training on research data management.  So when faced with running a research project that involves a considerable amount of data, it is telling to see if we can practice what we preach.

This blog post is a short list of how we have approached managing data for analysis. Judging by our colleagues’ faces when we described some of the advice here, this is blindingly obvious to some people. But it was news to us, so we are sharing it in case it is helpful to others.

Organising and storing the data

As is good practice we have started with  a  Data Management Plan. Actually we ended up having to write two, one for the qualitative and one for the quantitative aspect of the project. 

We have also had to think through where the data is being stored and backed up. All of the collected data is currently being stored on a shared Cambridge University Google Drive where only invited users with a Cambridge University email address can view the data. This is because it can handle Level 2 confidential information and was accessible on and off campus. Some of the data is confidential and publishers have asked us to keep it private.

The data is also stored on a staff member’s laptop computer in her Documents folder (the laptop is password protected) that is backed up by the Library on a daily basis. There is a second storage place on the Office of Scholarly Communication’s (OSC) Shared Drive to ensure that there are two backups in two different locations.

One dataset has proven difficult to use as it is 48MB and Google Drive does not seem to be able to handle that file size well.

Each dataset was renamed with the file naming syntax that the OSC uses. This includes a three letter prefix at the beginning (e.g. RAW for raw data), a short description, then a version, and finally the date that the data was received. Underscores separate each section and there are no spaces. An example is MEM_JCSBlogData_V1_20180618.docx

To organise and summarise the metadata, we have created two spreadsheets. One is a logbook that records the name of the file, a description of the data, size of the file, if it is confidential, and what years it covers. The second spreadsheet records what information each dataset covered, i.e. Peer Review, Editing, Citing, APCs, and Usage. The spreadsheet also records correspondence with the publishers.

Assessing our data

At first glance, we were unsure whether we could do cross comparisons between publishers with the data that we had collected. Although most datasets were provided in Excel (with the exception of the Springer 2017 report on gold open access and eLife), they were formatted differently and covered different areas.

Dr Laurent Gatto, one of Cambridge’s Data Champions, very kindly agreed to meet with us and look over the data that we had collected so far. He suggested a number of ways that we could clean up the data so that we could do some cross comparison analysis. Somewhat to our surprise he was generally positive about the quality and analysability of the data that we had collected.

Cleaning up data for analysis

After an initial look at the data, Laurent gave us some excellent suggestions on managing and analysing the data. These are summarised below:

  • Have a separate folder where the original datasets will be saved. These files will remain untouched.
  • When doing any re-formatting, a new file will be created using the same naming convention, but updating the version. A record of any changes to the dataset will need to be recorded in a spreadsheet.
  • Ensure that all of the headers are uniform across the different spreadsheets, to allow analysis across datasets. Each header must be the same down to the last lowercase letter and cannot include any spaces
  • Dates must also be uniform using Year-Month-Day format
  • Only the first row of a spreadsheet can include the header. Having more than one row with header information will cause problems when you are starting to code.
  • Create a readme file where every header will be recorded with a short description.

Next steps

After speaking with Laurent we are more optimistic about the data that we have collected than we were before. We were concerned that there was not enough information to do analysis across publishers; however, we are more confident that this is not the case. As we start the analysis it will also give us a better understanding of what data is missing.

We will provide an update as we close in on our findings.

Published 26 June 2018
Written by Katie Hughes & Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

Cambridge’s RCUK/COAF Open Access spend January 2017 – March 2018

It’s been reporting season for institutions in receipt of RCUK Open Access block grant awards, so we’ve been busy preparing data for both RCUK (now UKRI) and Jisc about how Cambridge has spent its funding allocation over the past 15 months (January 2017 – March 2018). In this blog post I’ll focus mainly on the Jisc Open Access article processing charge (APC) report as it includes both RCUK and COAF expenditure, which we’ve made available in Apollo (the RCUK report is available there too). We’ve had to make a few tweaks to the data to perform the analysis that follows, but that shouldn’t substantially affect the figures. Unless stated otherwise, all charges reported include VAT at 20%.


Let’s start with a few headline numbers (Table 1). In the reporting period January 2017 – March 2018 the Open Access Team paid Open Access APCs totalling more than £2.8 million. By far the largest beneficiary of this funding was Elsevier, which received over £870,000 for RCUK and COAF funded research articles (that’s 31% of all our APC spend). In fact, Elsevier dominates the figures to such an extent that for this blog post I’ve split Cell Press titles to provide a little more insight.

Table 1. Headline figures between January 2017 and March 2018 for the RCUK and COAF Open Access block grants (

  Value Notes
Total spend £2,989,609.13
Open Access £2,847,135.05
Additional publication costs (mainly page and colour fees) £111,631.68
Publisher memberships/deals £30,842.40
Articles 1547 SCOAP3 papers unknown
‘Other’ Springer Compact articles 221
Mean APC (All publishers) £1,840 SCOAP3 papers unknown
Mean APC (excluding ‘Other’ Springer Compact articles) £2,147 SCOAP3 papers unknown
Mean APC ± σ (invoiced APCs only) £2,254 ± 1007 Excludes SCOAP3, Springer Compact, Wiley prepayment, OUP prepayment
Median APC (invoiced APCs only) £2,042 Excludes SCOAP3, Springer Compact, Wiley prepayment, OUP prepayment

That £2.8 million paid for at least 1547 articles. I say ‘at least’ because (i) we haven’t recorded papers funded through the SCOAP3 partnership for which we paid just shy of £25,000; (ii) choosing a precise reporting date is difficult, especially for prepayment deals where invoicing is disconnected from the publishing process; and (iii) we are reporting from specific University cost centres, however, for operational reasons payments may have been taken from other sources making it difficult to ultimately reconcile in a neat report.

But assuming these problems are negligible then the mean APC was £1,840 (which is similar to previous years).

However, there is the complication of the Springer Compact which Cambridge funds through a combination of the RCUK and COAF block grants. If we only consider RCUK/COAF funded papers processed as part of the Springer Compact then the average APC is £1,036, significantly less than Springer’s APC list price of €2,200 +VAT (so it’s a good deal from an RCUK/COAF perspective). However, a majority of Springer Compact papers do not acknowledge RCUK or COAF, and under normal circumstances these papers would not be eligible for Open Access funding. Excluding these 221 ‘other’ Springer Compact papers from the calculations increases the overall mean APC to £2,147. This demonstrates, once again, how progressive the Springer Compact continues to be. We wrote last year about the value to us of the deal. The overall distribution of APCs paid to all publishers is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Distribution of all APCs paid to all publishers (including prepayments to OUP and Wiley). Springer Compact and Wiley credit articles are also shown for completeness.

Level playing field?

Figure 2 and Table 2 give an in-depth breakdown of the APCs paid to publishers for which at least 10 APCs were paid. There are several interesting features to the data. Firstly, the sheer number and spread of APCs paid to Elsevier is immense. While many other publishers have clear pricing bands, Elsevier’s pricing structure exists in a continuum between £500 and £5,000. Elsevier’s mean APC is well above that of the all-publisher mean, though still within one standard deviation. The same cannot be said of Cell Press, which has a mean APC of £4,084 and is the only large publisher more than one standard deviation from the all-publisher mean invoice value. The bulk of their APCs are clustered just below £5000.

Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) mean APC is somewhat distorted because the majority of APCs are for either Scientific Reports (£1,332) or Nature Communications (£3,780). These journals are also the two most popular with Cambridge authors at 65 and 50 papers respectively, roundly beating third placed Journal of the American Chemical Society which had 24 papers.

Price banding of APCs paid in Pounds Sterling can be seen in a number of other publishers, notably the Royal Society of Chemistry, BioMed Central and BMJ. It is also apparent in some publishers which charge in US Dollars, such as PLOS and the American Chemical Society (ACS), although currency fluctuations mean these APCs have a spread of Sterling values. A cluster of ACS invoices around £500 fall in to two categories (i) CC BY fees and (ii) invoices which had additional discounts applied by ACS (some authors get credits with ACS).

Figure 2. Individual and mean APCs paid to publishers. The mean APC value represents the total paid for these schemes per article processed. The all-publisher mean invoice with one standard deviation is shown for comparison. Standard deviations are not given for Springer Compact, Wiley (prepayment) or OUP (prepayment) because individual invoices are not processed in these cases. APC values for these deals are either based on the mean (Springer Compact) or the nominal APC value if we had been directly invoiced. Click the image to view a larger version.

Table 2. Total APC, membership and other publication fees paid to publishers.

Publisher Open Access Spend (£) Articles Mean APC (£) σ (£) Publisher memberships/deals (£) Additional publication costs (£) Articles Mean publication costs (£)
Elsevier 638,833 245 2,607 689 1,535 3 512
Springer Compact (other) 221  –
Wiley (prepayment) 288,000 151 1,907 4,509 3 1,503
NPG 316,398 130 2,434 1,182 6,535 4 1,634
ACS 141,377 81 1,745 358 2,694 23* 117
Springer Compact (RCUK/COAF) 76,700 74 1,036  –
Cell Press (Elsevier) 232,809 57 4,084 1,024 21,684 11 1,971
OUP (prepayment) 102,000 56 1,821 960 1 960
RSC 76,620 50 1,532 449  –
BMC 81,708 49 1,668 267 10,524
PLOS 68,989 40 1,725 432
IOP 74,334 38 1,956 354 1,998 2 999
Frontiers 56,359 30 1,879 524  –
Taylor & Francis 16,090 26 619 326 1,152 2 576
BMJ 51,358 25 2,054 511 900 3 300
CUP 40,991 21 1,952 465  –
OUP 43,950 19 2,313 1,171 2,918 6,909 5 1,382
Company of Biologists 41,524 16 2,595 782  –
Royal Society 21,600 15 1,440 180 15,000  –
American Society for Microbiology 30,827 14 2,202 807 3,141 5 628
MDPI 13,370 13 1,028 360  –

*These charges are ACS membership fees, which we pay on behalf of authors because the ACS offers substantial APC discounts to its members.

Page and colour charges

Paling in comparison to APC expenditure, though still a significant sum given that other UK institutions receive less than £10,000 p.a. from RCUK, we supported additional publication costs (mostly page and colour fees) to the value of £111,000. Nearly 20% of this spend went to Cell Press titles with an average article costing £1,971. One has to wonder why publishers continue to charge these sort of publication fees. Fees of this nature are outdated and out of touch, and it is hard to see how they are anything but a cynical attempt at revenue raising.

It is especially galling though when page and colour fees are levied on top of already high APCs. The combined cost to publish a single article in Neuron was £7633.19. Table 3 lists the articles for which we paid over £5000 in either APCs or page and colour charges – I’d encourage you to read them if for no other reason than we get our money’s worth. Together these nine papers represent 1.9% of our total spend, yet only 0.7% of RCUK/COAF funded articles. Cell Press is particularly guilty in this case, making up the bulk of ultra-expensive papers. Indeed, because we don’t routinely pay page and colour charges, it seems highly likely that many page and colour fees will have been paid without our knowledge. We might reasonably assume, therefore, that there are many more ultra-expensive papers that have gone unnoticed in this analysis.

Table 3. Ultra-expensive papers which cost more than £5000 to publish.

DOI Publisher Journal APC (£) P&C (£) Total (£)
10.1016/j.neuron.2017.07.016 Cell Press (Elsevier) Neuron 4808.26 2824.93 7633.19
10.1016/j.molcel.2018.01.034 Cell Press (Elsevier) Molecular Cell 4840.19 2488.67 7328.86
10.3945/ajcn.116.150094 Oxford University Press (OUP) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 4626.52 2109.7 6736.22
10.1016/j.stem.2018.01.020 Cell Press (Elsevier) Cell Stem Cell 4855.96 1807.18 6663.14
10.1016/j.devcel.2017.04.004 Cell Press (Elsevier) Developmental Cell 4552.94 2003.28 6556.22
10.1016/j.cub.2017.08.004 Cell Press (Elsevier) Current Biology 4875.32 1362.43 6237.75
10.1016/j.cub.2017.01.050 Cell Press (Elsevier) Current Biology 4585.8 1285.94 5871.74
10.1038/ncomms16001 Nature Publishing Group Nature Communications 5542.17* 5542.17
10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00290.1 American Meteorological Society Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 5539.43 5539.43

*Normally we’d be charged in Pounds Sterling for Nature Communications articles, however, this invoice was received from an international co-author who was charged in US Dollars with an unfavourable exchange rate. At the time the usual charge for Nature Communications was £3150 +VAT. You can see just how much of an outlier this paper is in Figure 2.

The long view

If we look back on the past five years of RCUK expenditure (Table 4) it is clear that after a slow start, the annual expenditure rapidly increased, and now exceeds the annual allocation provided by RCUK. If no controls are placed on expenditure we might expect to overspend in 2018/19 by £400,000. Given the finite block grant, that is something we need to urgently mitigate.

Table 4. Cambridge’s historical RCUK block grant spend over the past five years, with a projection for 2018/19 if no controls are placed on expenditure (

OA block grant summary information OA grant brought forward (£) OA grant received (£) OA Grant available (£) OA grant spent (£) OA grant carried forward (£)
Actual Year 1 spend (April 2013 – March 2014) 0 1,151,812 1,151,812 471,147 680,665
Actual Year 2 spend (April 2014 – March 2015) 680,665 1,355,073 2,035,738 1,139,480 896,258
Actual Year 3 spend (April 2015 – March 2016) 896,258 1,546,388 2,442,646 1,358,415 1,084,232
Actual Year 4 spend (April 2016 – March 2017) 1,084,232 1,269,319 2,353,550 1,935,379 418,172
Actual Year 5 spend (April 2017 – March 2018) 418,172 1,350,225 1,768,397 1,767,821 576
Estimated spend in Year 6 (April 2018 – March 2019) 576 1,362,905 1,363,481 1,800,000 -436,519

Cambridge has operated a ‘15% rule’ for many years where, because roughly 15% of all publications are in fully OA journals, if block grant funding were to dip to this level the Open Access Team would not pay hybrid APCs so as to ensure authors publishing in fully OA journals would not be left to foot the bill. However, flipping between policies based on the variability of block grant funding causes considerable confusion amongst authors, so a consistent policy implemented with plenty of forewarning would be preferable. Our peers at Oxford and Manchester have already announced policies that restrict the payment of hybrid APCs, and we are considering similar models to rein in our spending. Watch this space.

Published 18 June 2018
Written by Dr Arthur Smith
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