Finland takes leading role in the openness of academic journal pricing

Freedom of Information request by open science advocates has revealed academic journal pricing through an administrative court decision. Finland is the first country where the subscription prices paid by practically all universities and research institutions to individual publishers are made available. This strengthens the position of universities in the 2016 contract negotiations, made ever more timely by the recent deep funding cuts. Comparisons between publishers and countries also supports the ongoing discussion of alternative publishing models and directing funding towards open access (OA) publishing.

The costs of academic journals have risen precipitously, but the lack of detailed pricing information has made the overall situation difficult to perceive. There are significant price differences between publishers, universities and countries. While dominant publishing houses have reported profit margins of tens of percent and the industry is ever more concentrated, university libraries including Harvard have reached a fiscally unsustainable situation. This has in part contributed to the ongoing breakthrough of open access.

In the spring of 2014, the conclusion that contract prices should be public also in Finland was reached in a discussion group of the Open Knowledge Finland (OKF) association. In the summer, researcher and open science advocate Leo Lahti made a Freedom of Information request to Aalto and other Finnish universities on behalf of the OKF. The universities themselves would stand to benefit from the openness, making negotiations more transparent and potentially resulting in cost savings.

None of the universities supplied the requested information. The fear of publisher legal action may have prevented them from following their own principles of openness, because for example Aalto refused to even provide an appealable decision, denied having acted as a public institution covered by the openness laws, and finally tried to transfer its responsibility to the National Library. Open science advocates brought the matter to the Helsinki administrative court, which predictably confirmed that the prices of subscription contracts are public information. Similar demands for openness had been made previously; national and university-level figures are available for some countries, but detailed publisher-specific information has only been made public in the UK and the USA. In the end, the Open Science and Research Initiative (ATT) of the Ministry of Education and Culture took responsibility for gathering the Finnish pricing data.

After this two-year process Finland is now amongst the first countries where publisher- specific prices have been made public in detail over several years. The material includes the costs of 266 publisher titles for all universities and dozens of other institutions, the total sum of which in 2010-2015 was 131.1 million euros. A more detailed analysis can be found in a separate post. Special thanks are due to the Finnish open science community, whose initiative and perseverance was required to fulfill the spirit of the openness laws.