What do you think is the role of the university? It can be defined by three main themes. They are education, research, and volunteer work. Among them, for the research, subscription to academic journals is indispensable. However, some universities renounce these subscriptions because of their financial difficulties. Let’s find out what academic journal subscription is, why some universities quit subscriptions, and its impact.
Financial difficulties of the university and downscaling research funds
According to KASFO (Korea Advancing Schools Foundation) the dependence rate on tuition fees for private universities between 2017 and 2019 was 59% which was very high. In short, in the case of private universities, a large part of the finances are covered by student tuition fees. In 2021, Most universities have been suffered financial difficulties for 13 years due to the government’s policy of a freeze on tuition fees and tuition markdown. According to the MOE (Ministry of Education), in 2020, among 196 universities nationwide 181 universities froze their tuition fees. Moreover, 10 universities marked down their tuition fees. However, this was done in response to government policy, not by the intention of the universities.
Following the Present Higher Education Acts, universities could raise tuition fees within 1.5 times the average consumer price inflation rate in the last three years. Currently, the MOE prevents universities from raising tuition fees by excluding them from national scholarship type two if they raise tuition fees. In 2019, the Korean Association of Private University Presidents said and resolved “universities financial situation has reached the limit; we should raise tuition fees within the range of the Acts.” But the MOE realistically refused to allow tuition fees to be raised, saying that current tuition fees for the private university are not low and if universities try to raise tuition fees, MOE will conduct audits. Also, under the revised Higher Education Acts, admission fees are reduced step by step and scheduled to be eliminated in 2023. This will further aggravate the financial difficulties of universities.
This kind of continued financial difficulty at the universities is affecting research. The total R&D (research and development) budget for private universities was almost 540 billion won in 2011, but it was confirmed that it decreased to 440 billion won in 2017. Also, investment in education expenditures per student, including research funding, experiment, and practicing fees and budget for equipment and books, showed a decrease at private universities. In August 2020, according to Academyinfo, private university investment decreased from 10.27 million won per student to 10.24 million won. According to an article from a university journal, one of the stakeholders of the Korean Council for University Education said that “Shrinking investment for improvement of the educational conditions of universities leads to a decline in the quality of university education and global competitiveness. Furthermore, it may cause deterioration of national competitiveness. Switzerland IMD (International Institute for Management Development) announced the fact that the competitiveness of university education in Korea fell from 41st in 2013 to 49th in 2018. And WEF (World Economic Forum) also announced that the quality of the university system in Korea dropped from 64th in 2013 to 81st in 2017.
With this kind of financial difficulty and reduction of research funding, more and more universities are considering stopping academic journal subscriptions because of increased charges.
The author can browse his dissertation which was submitted to journal on paper in offline circumstance. But paper dissertations are uncomfortable to search or find the desired contents. To read a dissertation, it is essential that the reader search by title, keywords, and contents to find appropriate information through a variety of dissertations in an academic journal. The online academic journal database company likes IEEE, DBpia enables people to search this way more easily. For this reason, from the perspective of university students (and postgraduate students), the online academic journal is indispensable for their research.
According to the statistical survey of university library analysis results conducted by the MOE and KERIS (Korea Education and Research Information Service), the number of commercial databases used per student increased to 261.7 in 2017, compared with 180.5 in 2016. If online academic journal services provided by the university is stopped, the first victims will be researchers such as students and postgraduate students who studied in university. This is because dissertation previously freely available for reading can be read only when the individual pays between 6,000 won and 9,000 won per dissertation or pays hundreds of thousands of won in subscription fees personally. According to a doctoral student interview conducted by the Seoul National University newspaper, “if there are 20 dissertations cited directly as references, I should read more than twice as many documents, and even if I calculate 6,000 won per dissertation, it costs more than 200,000 won. Without financial support, poor researchers cannot afford to write a dissertation.”
Universities should subscribe to online academic journals for research. But the company that provides the service takes advantage of this circumstance by raising subscription rates abnormally. According to another statistical survey of university library analysis conducted by KERIS, 246 universities nationwide spent 114.82 billion won on online academic journal subscriptions in 2019. This is 50.4% of the total cost of study material. The problem is that the budget for study materials for university libraries remained the same, but subscription fee had been steadily increasing for the last five years. Professor Kim Yeongseok of Myongji University (Literature and information Department) who participated as a senior researcher of KERIS and his team asserted that continuous demand growth and exclusive status caused the dramatic increase in subscription fees. And it is expected to continue steadily.
In 2018, KUCE Consortium which is composed of KCUE (Korean Council for University Education) and KUCLA (The Korea University & College Library Association) declared a boycott of the top three online academic journal suppliers: Science Direct, DBpia, and KISS, claimed that “the increase rates is excessive.” But eventually, they accept the proposed increase. The reason why KUCE Consortium declared a boycott was that the companies demanded a subscription fees increase of more than 10 percent. According to KUCLA, the online academic journal subscription fee was 162.7 billion won in 2017. They increased it 3.2%, 6.6%, and 10.1% from 2017 to 2020 due to the request of those companies. Professor Kim analyzed needed powerful institutional support and long-term policymaking to solve this problem.
Case of stopping academic journal subscription.
About a year later, on January 11, 2019, KNULA (The Korea National University Library Association) officially declared a boycott of the DBpia due to the continuous increase of the cost of journal service. DBpia is the largest academic journal platform in Korea and provides 2.27 million dissertations. DBpia’s subscription fee was 41.61 million won in 2017, but it increased by 9.5% to 45.6 million in 2018, and in 2019 they offered 49.98 million won, an increase of 9.6%. Assistant deputy director Choi Deoksu said that “The increase rate offered by the company is 9.5% without discount, which is excessive when compared to average annual fee increase rate of 5% for general academic journal service.” Also, secretary-general Gang Honggu said that “We decided to stop subscribing to DBpia because they kept the existing increase rate, and we will offer private university libraries to participate in the campaign to stop subscribing.”
DBpia said that the actual increase rate is not 9% when they applied various discounts such as 3-year subscription discount and early contract discount. About the contract, DBpia asserted that they agreed on the subscription fee in 2018, and universities were aware of it and signed a three-year contract, but they suddenly raised the issue after a year. Concerning this, a postgraduate student at a university that stopped subscribing to DBpia was interviewed by Sisajournal, “Both universities and companies are playing chicken games with students as the victims. A similar situation is repeated every year, but so far, universities have not taken any measures and eventually escalated the situation to this extent. This is a dereliction of duty.” The chicken game means that if one side gives up, the other side will be damaged. But if neither side gives up, both will be most damaged and it leads to the worst result.
There is the case of foreign university that stopped subscribing to academic journals. In 2019, the University of California decided to stop subscribing to Elsevier. This decision got attention because this is the conflict between giant university and a titanic worldwide academic journal publisher. Elsevier, famous for the biological journal ‘The Cell’ and the medical journal ‘The Lancet,’ is a giant company that publishes more than 430,000 dissertations in about 2,500 journals every year. The reason the University of California stopped subscribing to such a large academic journal publisher is because of its high subscription fee of about $11.29 million a year. If someone’s dissertation is passed, it must be published in a journal with a high publication fee. And this dissertation can only be viewed through journals, and users, including the author, must pay when reading this dissertation.
Ivy Anderson, director of the University of California’s digital library, demanded the reduction of the costs by combining two expenses into one, mentioning that “they charge the publication fee and usage fee for the same content, this is double-dipping for the same contents.” But this request was not accepted. Another reason why they failed to negotiate is that the University of California also requested open access (open for free to the public) for dissertations written by researchers from the University of California. The University of California claimed that their dissertation is a result of research funded by taxes, is a public good. Therefore, they argued that it is unreasonable that some companies take advantage of an exclusive position of distributing public goods and receiving fees their use. The demand of open access from the University of California became a burden to Elsevier that gets its profits from academic journal subscription fees. It is likely that this caused the contract breakdown.
The University of California continues to provide open access to academic journals even after negotiations with Elsevier regarding subscription fees and open access broke down. In June 2020, they make an open-access contract with Springer Nature which is the biggest academic journal publisher in North America. Springer Nature is planning to offer open access to dissertations written by the University of California starting in 2022.
Solution for raising subscription fees.
Now, let’s look at possible solutions. The Open Access Movement is an international movement that allows various research results to be freely shared as soon as they are published under the concept of free access and use of academic information. One of the Open Access Movements called Plan S is an Encouragement program to open academic journals utterly free. Plan S was launched in September 2019 under the initiative of the EC (European Commission) with the support of nations and organizations from 11 countries including the UK, France, and the Netherlands.
To be specific, academic institutions pay the publication fees to academic journal companies instead of Researchers who want to publish a dissertation. By using Plan S, they aim to open access to research information and force academic journal publishers to reduce publication fees. According to Donga Science Professor Seo Jungwook of Seoul National University College of Medicine, who is campaigning for Open Access academic journal in Korea, “If Plan S succeeds, we will be able to save our budget and utilize research.” According to Rinfo, in 2017, the cost of purchasing foreign online academic journals for university libraries in Korea was confirmed to be about 100 billion won.
In 2018, at the regular general meeting, KUCE requested the government to expand financial investment in universities and establish related laws to provide stable support. They insisted on expanding national support for university licensing projects for online academic journals with high prices and many subscriptions. With the advantages of this action, universities can invest in other research by reducing their study materials budget. Concerning the most expensive major journal publishers, (Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer) KUCE requested financial support of about 15 billion won (5 billion won for each company). The subscription fee of Elsevier and Wiley was 56.7 billion won as of 2017. This was about 36% of the total online academic journal purchase cost to universities in Korea. So, KUCE hoped to get 5 billion won of support from the government which is 30 percent of the average subscription price of Elsevier and Wiley. Also, they took a stand that universities have trouble from unilateral price increase demands by some large and monopolistic companies and said that a joint response is needed to set a transparent price.
The MOE announced the second comprehensive university library promotion plan. The government and universities jointly invested and purchased 28 types of foreign academic journal database licenses. It will be increased to 35 types by 2023, and professors at universities that could not afford to purchase academic databases due to lack of financial resources will be able to subscribe for free at night (4 pm ~ 9 am). Also, universities that receive subsidies for academic research support projects from the MOE will be advised to use more than 10% of the indirect fund for purchasing library materials such as online journals which will be mandatory through revision of relevant laws. The academic research support fund in 2019 was 700 billion won. Of this, the indirect fund was estimated to be 168 billion won.
Inha University tried to stop subscribing to IEEE
On November 3, 2020, Junseok Memorial Library announced a discontinuation of the subscriptions to IEEE and ASTM by e-mail to university students and staff. IEEE is an acronym of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, with 350,000 members in 150 countries worldwide, and is recognized as the most prestigious organization in electricity, electronics, and computers. Students and researchers in this field read most of the dissertations in IEEE, but it has become controversial because the library had unilaterally notified them of the discontinuation of the subscription without any proper alternative. Regarding this, a post was uploaded in Inha Plaza, entitled ‘Please Help postgraduate students of computer engineering. Without IEEE and ACM, we can’t carry on our research.’ It claimed that ‘most of the postgraduate students of computer engineering read dissertation from IEEE and ACM, now we can’t read either of them. Without the dissertation, nothing can be done.’ This post received a lot of support from students with 803 recommendations by November 3, 2020. These included the comments, ‘I’m so embarrassed.’ ‘It is impossible to stop subscribing to IEEE.’ This case was concluded when Inha University announced a re-subscription to IEEE and ASTM on November 21, 2020.
The purpose of the University is to conduct research. However, the continued financial difficulties of the university and profiteering of academic journal publishers make us worry about even finding data on which to base our research. The university should invest in the future profit rather than present loss. Saving the present by sacrificing the future will cause a bigger problem later.
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