Pay per view pricing for (OUP) journals; and thoughts on FoI

I have recently received two FoI replies, one which I think illustrates the best of the system (Oxford University, my alma mater) and one that doesn’t (University of Cambridge, my current home).

To start with the Cambridge one. I requested information from The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre ( ) because the CCDC was listed as a department of the University. I should point out that I had already asked this of the CCDC and was refused – so I hoped that it might come under the legal constraint of FoI. I sent the request off through WhatDoTheyKnow and waited.

To keep you in suspense I’ll comment that WDTK now has 14% of all FoI requests. I think this is excellent. It’s great to have the answers clearly outlined. Here’s their graph ( ):

Note, in passing, that 7000 requests/quarter = 600 request a week == ca 100 requests per day over the whole country. That seems like a healthy number for a government that is rightly promoting openness. No evidence of serious spamming.

Anyway, back to Cambridge. Here’s their reply, which arrived ONE HOUR before the 20 working data deadline:

Contrary to your assertion that the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CC DC) is ‘one of the listed departments of the University’ the CC DC is a separate legal entity with the status of Non-University Institution solely for the purposes of supervising students on MPhil and PhD research degree programmes. The CCDC operates as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee under English law and is a registered charity with the Charity Commission. This is set out on the CCDC website at: ccdc/company information/legal status/ The CCDC is also registered separately from the University with the Information Commissioner (under register entry number Z6351501).

The requested information is therefore not held.

It is always possible that it took 19.75 days to work this out, or that the FoI officer was snowed under with other work. But It’s also possible that there is a policy of delaying answers until just before the deadline. I would suggest that the FoI office knew this information on or shortly after receipt of my request. They could then have informed me.

The WDTK site says:

The Freedom of Information Act says:

A public authority must comply with section 1(1) promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.

The nerdy detail of exactly how weekends are counted, and what happens if the request arrives out of office hours, is just that – detail. What matters here is that the law says authorities must respond promptly.

The word “promptly” is emphasized for good reason. It’s mean to show that the respondent should try to be helpful, not grudging. I’ll leave you to decide which.

By contrast The OUP response was helpful, though also left until the eleventieth-eleventh hour. (They disagree with WDTK about when the clock starts ticking, but I could wait.) I asked them about pricing of individual journal articles (“Pay Per View”, PPV) and you may find this interesting – I did:

Before you read it, try guessing how many people pay to read a PerPerView article.

Thank you for your request. 

Q1 (a) Who sets the pricing policy for online purchases? (b) Has this ever been reviewed 
by advisory or governing bodies? 

A1(a):  What  you  have  called  “online  purchases”,  we  call  “pay  per  view”  (“PPV”).  PPV 
pricing  is  set  by  the  relevant  division  (for  example  Global  Academic  Division,  which 
includes journals), and is reviewed ad hoc at that divisional level. The pricing has been 
based  on  market  levels  (which  means,  for  example,  that  our  pricing  for  articles  from 
humanities  journals  is  generally  lower  than  that  for articles  from  scientific or medical 
journals)  and  also  takes  into  account  the  risk  that  too  low  pricing  could  undermine 
subscriptions. As conditions change, we may change our approach to PPV pricing. This 
can happen at the list or journal level. 
A1 (b): No. Reviews of PPV pricing have not taken place at a higher than divisional level. 


PMR: As I thought – prices are set by the office, not by reviewed by the University
Q2(a)  Is  the  policy  uniform  over  all  closed  access  articles,  and  if  not  (b)  what  are  the 

A2(a): No  
A2(b):  The  main  criterion  is  whether  the  article  is  from  a  humanities  or  scientific/ 
medical  journal.  As  mentioned  above,  articles  from  humanities  journals  are  generally 
cheaper than those from scientific or medical journals, though there are exceptions. 

PMR: Useful to know there is a differential

Q3 (a) Is any third party (e.g. a rights collection agency) involved? If so, (b) who, and (c) 
what proportion of the revenue do they take? 

A3(a): Yes 
A3(b): There are two types of third party involved in supplying PPV – (i) the third party 
that hosts our journals (HighWire), and (ii) third parties to whom we have licensed the 
right to sell our articles e.g. the British Library, Infotrieve and Reprints Desk. We do not 
offer PPV through any rights collection agencies. 

PMR: Good. I do not find rights collection agents to have a sense of anything other than maximising income.
A3(c):  For  the  first  type  of  third  party  in  A2(b)  above,  which  represents  around  two-
thirds  of  our PPV  sales, we  will  not  disclose  the  percentage of  the  revenue  from PPV 
taken by HighWire, because we believe that this information is exempt from disclosure 
under  Section  43(2)  of  the  Freedom  of  Information  Act  (FOIA).  


PMR: “FOIA 43(2) Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).” High-Wire (from Stanford Univ library) “As the leading ePublishing platform, HighWire Press partners with independent scholarly publishers, societies, associations, and university presses to facilitate the digital dissemination of 1552 journals, reference works, books, and proceedings.” I have no information as to whether it attempts to oversee PPV prices


HighWire  supplies journal  content  from  a  number  of  academic  publishers.  Disclosure  of  the  information 
requested  would  be  likely  to  prejudice  its  commercial  interests  by  weakening  its 
bargaining position in relation to other publishers, who do not have the same terms as 
OUP for PPV. This in turn might cause it to offer a less favourable deal to OUP. 
The  exemption  in  Section  43(2)  is  a  qualified  exemption,  which  requires  the  public 
authority  to  weigh  up  the  public  interest  in  favour  of  disclosure,  which  is  presumed 
from the FOIA, against the public interest in maintaining the exemption.  
The  University  accepts  that  there  is  a  public  interest  in  the  disclosure  of  financial 
information  about  OUP,  given  that  it  is  one  of  the  world’s  leading  publishers  and  a 
department  of  a  public  authority.  This  interest  is  met  through  the  publication  of 
abstracts  of  accounts  in  both  the  University’s  Financial  Statements  and  the  Annual 
Report  of  the  Delegates  of  the  University  Press1.  However,  we  consider  that  there  is 
little, if any, public interest in the disclosure of the percentage of PPV revenue received 
by  HighWire,  given  that  this  represents  an  insignificant  percentage  of  OUP’s  overall 
finances.  Furthermore,  OUP  receives  no  public  money;  it  aims  to  be  a  self-financing 
department of the University.   
The  limited  public  interest  in  disclosure  is  outweighed  by  the  public  interest  in 
maintaining the exemption. As already indicated, OUP is a department of the University 
of  Oxford,  and makes  a  significant  contribution  towards  the  University’s objectives  of 
promoting  excellence  in  teaching  and  research.  Any  harm  caused  to  its  commercial 
interests would undermine its ability to contribute to these goals.  
For  the  second  type  of  third  party  mentioned  in  A2(b)  above,  the  proportion  of  the 
revenue they take depends on what price they sell at, which is information we do not 
hold. We sell to them at a fixed price and they can charge what they like. 


PMR: A comprehensive and useful reply.
 Q4.  How  many  online  purchases  were  made  last  year  over  all  OUP  journal  articles? 
Please give both (a) purchase numbers and (b) total number of purchasable articles. 

A4(a): In 2010, 37,157 PPV articles were purchased. 
A4(b): We do not hold this information. 
 Q5.  What  is  the  revenue  from  online  purchases  as  a  fraction  of  subscription  (e.g. 
academic library) income? 

A5. PPV represents around 1.5% of total journal subscription income. 


PMR: Very interesting. I don’t know how many articles OUP publishes a year. About 270 journals, let’s guess ca 150 articles per year average (so journals are large, others small). That’s almost 1 PPV per article. Of course some articles are older. So the average per year per article might be 0.5 PPV per article per year.


This is higher than I would have thought. I remember many years ago the figure that the average paper was read by 1.5 people. If people actually pay 32$ or whatever that is a commitment. Of course it’s a lot less than the pageviews for Open Access journals. (Of course! I forgot that some of the journals are OA – but not many and it doesn’t affect the order of magnitude.



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pay per view pricing for (OUP) journals; and thoughts on FoI

  1. David Jones says:

    I remember talking with Francis Irving about the way almost everyone replies to FOI requests within a day or so of the legal deadline. There is a plausible explanation that doesn’t require much malice. There is someone responsible for responding to FOI requests. Every day she gets in and looks at the list of FOI requests that require a response. They are prioritised according to how old they are. The one that need a response today get a response. The rest wait until tomorrow. Repeat.
    Of course this is very lazy, and it results in requests that should take an hour or two taking 20 days, and requests that actually need some more complicated searching, like finding out who is responsible, blowing out the 20 day limit.
    The creating a legal entity / setting up a commercial relationship is also pretty common.
    It may be the case that CCDC is holding the information you requested on behalf on the university (in which case, the university is still obliged to disclose it). Might be worth persuing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *