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The Economics of Journal Publishing

Researchers routinely submit papers to their journals of choice and ask libraries to subscribe to those journals.  But those same researchers often have little idea of the institutional subscription price of those journals, how subscribing to them may impact the ability of their institution to retain subscriptions to other titles, or the impact on maintaining an equitable distribution of library budget dollars across subject areas.  Researchers who are informed about the prices and value of the journals in their subject areas and who consider subscription prices, rates of increase, and various measures of value in determining which journals they will submit papers to, review for, or be involved with editorially can positively impact the ability of their institution to maximize access to journal content across all subject areas.

Illustration of serial cost history

An excellent illustration of a recent 20 year history of journal subscription prices for research libraries is the graph of serial and monograph expenditure data produced by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)

An excellent illustration of a recent 20+ year history of journal subscription prices for research libraries is the graph of serial and monograph expenditure data (above) produced by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

As the graph illustrates, from a baseline of 1986:

  • serial expenditures by ARL libraries had risen 340% as of 2007
  • expenditures for books over that same period increased only 87%
  • the number of books purchased most years was lower than in 1986, with only two years showing small increases until 2007
  • the consumer price index increased by 89% over the same period, a rate of increase almost identical to that seen in book expenditures, but far lower than the increase in journal expenditures over the same period.

Although not illustrated in the 2007 graph, through 2006 serial expenditures had increased 321%, while the number of serials purchased had increased by only 51%. Until 2002 the number of serials purchased was below the baseline number of serials purchased in 1986.

As the graph indicates, serial expenditures have increased at a steep and steady rate, far greater than the other measures illustrated.  Serial expenditures went up at a rate far greater than book expenditures because serial prices went up at a far higher rate than did book prices.  Those high rates of serial price increases, often combined with publisher inflexibility in the ability of libraries to cancel subscriptions, plus demand for those high-priced journals by researchers, have sometimes led libraries to cancel high use, less expensive journals and retain lower use, more expensive titles.  But not all serial titles, or their publishers, are created equal.

Publisher type and value

Efforts have been made on various fronts to analyze and compare the costs and relative value of serials.  One such is the Journal Cost Effectiveness site by Ted Bergstrom and Preston McAfee, both professors of economics, at UC-Santa Barbara at Cal Tech respectively.  The Journal Cost Effectiveness site allows a user to compute price per article and price per citation (among other measures) across thousands of different journals.

The results of those computations show that, in general, cost per article and cost per citation are substantially higher for for-profit journals than for not-for-profit titles.  Differences in these values across titles vary by as much as three orders of magnitude.

The McAfee/Bergstrom summary statistics file, linked from www.journalprices.com, uses the following base data:

  • 10,100 journals are represented, 5,816 from for-profit publishers and 4,284 from not-for-profits
  • 17 subject areas are represented (agriculture, biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, education, engineering, geology, history, humanities, law, mathematics, medicine, physics, psychology, and social science)
Mean price Median price Mean price per article Median price per article Mean price per citation Median price per citation
For-profit 1874.40 1078.50 34.32 22.68 43.81 16.20
Not-for-profit 600.21 313.00 10.76 5.23 16.08 3.41
Ratio 3.12 3.45 3.19 4.34 2.73 4.75

Those numbers are remarkably consistent across all measures and collectively indicate that for-profit journals are generally greater than three times more expensive for libraries to purchase than are those from not-for-profit publishers, and that the mean and median price per article and price per citation are more than three times higher for for-profit journals.

Large increases in journal and other serial prices over the last 20+ years resulted in libraries, librarians and others taking action against the pricing practices of many publishers.  That push-back has taken many forms, including the flourishing of the open access movement as an alternative to traditional subscription-based publishing, concerted efforts by individual libraries and library consortia to pressure publishers to moderate the rates of increase in their journal subscriptions, and the involvement of funding agencies and government bodies in support of alternatives to traditional publishing models.  Individual researchers can become involved as well, first by educating themselves about the pricing and policies of the journals and publishers in their subject areas, and in taking other actions when appropriate.