Stuart Lawson and Ben Meghreblian submitted a series of freedom of information requests to obtain journal subscription data for 153 UK higher education institutions detailed in their paper in f1000 research.

Try my shiny app to see how much your university spent. With the caveat that “caution must be exercised when comparing the amount that an institution pays to the amount paid by other institutions, because it is likely that they are not purchasing access to exactly the same ‘package’ of content.

The University of Manchester was top of the spending table for 2014 with £3.2M. Checking the foi response that’s correct with half of that or £1.5M going to Elsevier “just for academic journals” and includes VAT.

  Institute Total (£)
1: University of Manchester 3,205,702
2: UCL 3,052,170
3: University of Cambridge 2,963,821
4: University of Nottingham 2,578,716
5: Imperial College London 2,472,530
6: University of Bristol 2,395,654
7: University of Birmingham 2,178,558
8: University of Oxford 2,153,840
9: University of Glasgow 2,062,353
10: Cardiff University 2,007,977

Looking by publisher it’s no surprise that Elsevier tops the list with just shy of £40M in 2014, with overall spending increasing year on year.

total year

Dutch universities have been in a fight with publishers over access to articles and are considering asking their academics boycot working with Elsevier. They want a model known as ‘gold open access’ where they will pay publishers up front to cover the costs of publication, then articles will be made open access for no extra cost.

The Dutch ‘gold open access’ policy has the advantage of paying once, then the article is open for anyone to read for free. If enough researchers used this model - or like the Dutch government it was enforced - university libraries would no longer need to buy the subscriptions.

The UK has also been moving in this direction but will pay additional costs to make articles open access - often £1000 - £2000 per article. But while this policy is not the norm worldwide UK universities still need to buy subscriptions to read articles which are not open-access.

An alternative is the ‘green open access’ policy or depositing articles in an online repository like arXiv, something much more popular in maths or physics than in the life sciences. Although there are some developments in that direction like bioRXiv.

Choosing between gold and green open access policies is also a choice between peer review as a filter before publishing, or publishing first then filtering through commentary and discussion. Journal publishers would say that peer review as a process improves papers and acts as a filter to bad science. Advocates of post-publication peer-review could point to cases of high-profile papers being retracted due to fraud or error and would say that due to the tools available and speed of online publishing and commenting it is the way forward.


  • Check out my app or download the data to explore further.
  • Some data is missing, for example Edinburgh Uni has no Elsevier data for 2014 bringing it down to 19th in 2014, but with the full data in 2013 it was 7th.
  • Code for the shiny app and data transformation is at my github page