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?

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.