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Why are journals so expensive?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This morning, at minute 48 of a 50 minute information literacy session for an introductory biology class, a student asked me one of those seemingly innocuous questions,

“Why are journals so expensive?”

We had spend the past 45 minutes talking about the scientific literature: what is peer review, what is a primary research article, and what happens after an article is published. I took two minutes to discuss finding journal articles and I gave my standard spiel about why students should use inter-library loan instead of paying for journal articles we don’t have: hundreds of thousands of your tuition dollars already pay databases and journal subscriptions. If we don’t already have a copy of the article you need in another database, we can borrow it from another library more cheaply than you can buy it online – free to you, low cost to us. Besides, the journal publishers don’t need more of your money. Journal subscriptions are much more expensive than magazine subscriptions – hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for just one journal.

The students’ eyes went wide at the last statement about the cost of journal subscriptions. You can get a year of People for just $100, or a year of Scientific American for only $25. So why does a library subscription to the Journal of Co-ordination Chemistry (24 issues per year) cost $11,367 per year?

I believe this graph of journal costs over the years is mandatory for any blog post, presentation or article that discusses journal prices. Here it is. The yellow dotted line is the consumer price index. The top red line is journal costs. From ARL.

Since I had about 90 seconds to provide some kind of answer to this question, my mind quickly raced through the details of the “serials crisis,” distinctions between journal prices for STM and humanities journals, the rise of the for-profit publisher after World War II, open access mandates and everything else.

In the end, I told the student there were two main reasons why publishers charge so much for journal subscriptions:

  1. The subscription isn’t just for one person, it is so that everyone at the university could (theoretically) read that content
  2. Because they can.

Journals have content (articles, reviews) that scholars and students want. Due to the nature of academic publishing, that exact same content (the results from a particular study or experiment) can’t be found in another journal. These mini-monopolies put power in the hands of publishers as scientists and scholars need access to particular content.

It’s kind of like the way that HBO can control its subscription price. If you want to watch Game of Thrones, you have to subscribe to HBO. You may get it via Time Warner or Direct TV, but HBO can still set the price. The major difference here is that unlike TV shows for entertainment purposes, some scholarly content can be considered vital to the educational and research mission of a college, making it difficult to say NO to.

This may be changing. There have been several high profile cases of libraries saying NO to high priced journal content (more on that next time), and researchers are more aware than ever of the repercussions of publishing in expensive journals. Hopefully this will lead to a greater balance of power between scholarly publishers and the institutions that purchase their content.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jplatt 12:09 pm 09/26/2012

    You really can’t compare the pricing of magazines like People and SA to science journals. Commercial magazines earn back their costs (and hopefully make a profit) from advertising, not subscription fees.

    That only goes so far, of course, and it doesn’t mean that the pricing model for scientific journals is not incredibly broken.

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  2. 2. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 1:08 pm 09/26/2012

    I agree that comparing People to the Journal of Co-ordination chemistry isn’t ideal – but that’s the frame of reference that most of my students come to class with. They are familiar with popular magazines, and we spend time talking about how scientific journals are different, advertising being one of many factors.

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  3. 3. starbird3000 2:56 pm 09/26/2012

    That’s an extremely simplistic argument. Here’s some other reasons why.
    1. Journals have to convert files to XML, send out to peer review, process the files, pay for servers, pay for DOI costs, pay to make sure the journal can survive in perpetuity whether the publisher exists or not, pay editors to reject articles, pay to maintain the existing IT standards and widgets readers and authors expect, pay for access controls, pay for statistics so that institutions can see who uses the journals, pay to maintain archives etc…

    For the latter, if you were willing to pay $235 per book per year to have it in the library, why not pay the publisher for some of the costs associated with the publisher storing it on their servers?

    2. The magazines mentioned have a publishing run in the 100,000s. Some journals its in the few hundred. If a editor costs say $100,000 (for office space, salary etc), then that’s $1 per subscriber for people magazine. For a journal with a circulation of 2000, that’s $50 per subscriber for that journal (these are some very crude cost values that I’m putting in). Multiple that by a typical staffing level (5-30 people for journals) and $250K for the servers and software it soon becomes clear why journals are expensive, yet cheap for what you get.

    Most journals make money at the 1-10% profit level, roughly what Walmart makes (3-5%), not the 30-40% that some of the commercial publishers make (and that’s simply because they have scale).

    The bigger problem here is that the student probably wanted to know why they weren’t free, like all the music they download (see the recent piece on NPR about the intern who had 15,000 tracks but hadn’t bought any of the music).

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  4. 4. atdotde 3:01 pm 09/26/2012

    Actually “Journals have content (articles, reviews) that scholars and students want.” is not the full story. Journals don’t have the content as they don’t create any (nor do they do the editing or typesetting etc anymore). In fact,

    Scholars have the content (articles, reviews) that journals want.

    If they give it away for free (or for the ‘peer reviewed’ “quality” stamp), they should not be surprised they have to pay big money to get it back.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Bonnie Swoger in reply to Bonnie Swoger 10:24 am 09/27/2012

    Here you are getting at the more fundamental issues surrounding the economics of scholarly publishing – scholars give their work away for free in exchange for the reputation points publication gives them (needed for tenure and promotion and grants, etc.). Reviewers review articles for free as a service to the scholarly community and the advancement of knowledge. Then another department from the same institution needs to buy back access to that stuff.

    While publishers provide some services that are worth paying for (logistics, hosting, access, etc.), the cost of science journals tend to be far higher than scholarly humanities journals that provide the same services.

    I rarely get a chance to discuss this kind of thing with undergraduate students – there is rarely time in the semester.

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  6. 6. Nponzar 12:00 pm 02/14/2014

    I think its a shame that scholarly articles are so expensive. Once I graduate from college, I won’t have access to any of the primary literature (aside from free sources such as PLoS ONE). I think it is another barrier dividing the wealthy from the poor, and contributes to many people’s sour taste for science. There are many who may not be in a financial position to attend college or purchase articles, but wish to study on their own, research scientific issues that may influence the way they vote or live, or have some other specific need to look at the primary literature (personal health research, for example).

    Without access to these journals, people have to rely on popular science and mainstream media to accurately interpret the study, and we all know the great job that mainstream media does in accurately relaying the results of research (sarcasm).

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  7. 7. jddunlap 5:50 pm 09/11/2014

    What Nponzar said!

    I follow science news very closely, and when I see a report on a finding or study that really interests me, I like to go in depth and find out more from the original source, since I find that it gives me a more well-rounded understanding. When I learn about something that affects my everyday life, I like to do the same. I don’t mind paying a reasonable fee to do so, but no way can I afford the kind of money it costs to subscribe to or often even get temporary access to many of the publications out there.

    The freer knowledge is, the better educated we all can become and the better off our society will be. Since the scientific community often complains about how inaccurate popular reporting is with regards to scientific issues, they would do well to afford more people with access to the source material so that they can learn for themselves rather than through someone who interprets it for them.

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