Subscription Fee Hikes could Lead to Decline in University Research Capabilities

Subscription fees for academic journals in which scholars publish their research results have soared worldwide, and universities are struggling to deal with the situation. The government needs to take specific measures to prevent this trend from causing stagnation in research activities.

Researchers are judged by the number of papers they publish and how often their work is cited by other papers. To ensure their findings are published in the world’s leading academic journals and to allow their researchers to reference other scholars’ work, leading universities spend hundreds of millions of yen each year on subscriptions for overseas academic journals and other publications.

In some cases, universities pay journal publishers several hundreds of thousands of yen to have a researcher’s paper published online.

It can be said that the publication of research documents is an important process, serving as a starting point for disseminating new knowledge and technology to society.

In recent years, however, subscription fees for such journals have risen, placing a growing financial burden on universities. In fiscal 2021, universities across the nation paid subscription fees totaling ¥32.9 billion for electronic editions alone, a rise of 50% from 10 years ago.

Publishers have explained that editorial costs have increased due to a rise in the number of papers, for example, but universities are concerned that subscription fee hikes could strain their limited research funds and lead to a decline in research capabilities.

Nearly half the world’s academic papers run in journals published by three major European and U.S. companies, including a German company that publishes the scientific journal Nature. This oligopoly makes price competition difficult. As a result, universities have to maintain their subscriptions to such journals despite the high prices.

To address this situation, the Japanese government is considering such measures as submitting publicly funded research papers to government-related servers to be published for free, while subsidizing related fees. It is noteworthy that the government is serious about taking specific measures to deal with the issue.

National universities and other entities have already set up websites to publish papers independently, but such sites lack the clout of major academic journals. Even if the universities were to consolidate their sites, it would be no easy task to gain global recognition.

Additionally, providing publication fee subsidies to young researchers unable to raise funds to publish their research would not change the fact that public funds are being diverted out of Japan. It is difficult to say that this approach would serve as a fundamental solution.

It is difficult for universities to negotiate with publishers who hold a dominant position. It is said that in some European countries, government teams are leading such talks. For its part, Japan should not leave such negotiations to concerned universities alone, but rather, should create a government-driven system to ensure universities have negotiating power.

Publishers have contributed to research activities by making papers and data widely available. It is essential for such companies to aim for a business model that supports development in academic circles, rather than solely focusing on chasing profits.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 26, 2023)