Nov 152006

Stanford held a colloquium to discuss journal pricing on 6 November. It was covered in the Stanford Report by Barbara Palmer under the headline Ongoing crisis in academic-journal pricing is the focus of recent colloquium. An extract:

Although there was little clear consensus about strategy among presenters, faculty and staff at a Nov. 6 colloquium on issues in scholarly publishing, there were two points on which almost everyone agreed: The high costs for journal subscriptions charged by commercial publishers in recent years are unsustainable, and the ability to distribute articles electronically has fundamentally changed academic research and publishing.

The colloquium, sponsored by Stanford University Libraries, invited presenters from Stanford and other institutions to discuss issues including ways in which institutions and scholars are responding to the ongoing crisis in journal pricing. From 1986 to 2003, the unit cost of serials purchased by academic research libraries rose by 215 percent compared with a 68 percent rise in the consumer price index over the same time period, said Doug Brutlag, professor of biochemistry and current chairman of the Academic Council’s Committee on Libraries. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution in 2004 encouraging faculty to consider journal pricing as well as reputation when considering where to publish or serving on editorial boards.

There is a big discrepancy between the prices charged by for-profit and nonprofit journals, reported Ted Bergstrom, professor of economics at the University of California-Santa Barbara, in a talk titled “The Changing Economics of Scholarly Journals.” Bergstrom presented data comparing journal costs in 2004 that showed that the price-per-page of for-profit journals was about three times the average price-per-page of nonprofit journals.

I think it is a shame that these discussions don’t reflect the reality that (for the larger publishers (i.e. those most criticised) the headline journal subscription price per title is no longer the only, or perhaps not even the most important, measure of the price of a journal. The widespread adoption of electronic licensing of bundles of journals has reduced the average price per subscription substantially. It is sometimes argued (e.g. in Grace Baysinger’s slides at this meeting) that journal bundling means the library buys journals it doesn’t need. But there is lots of evidence on substantial increased use of journals under “Big Deal” and similar licences, with substantial use coming from previously non-subscribed titles (and also from surprisingly old digitised journal archives, but that is another story), and substantial reductions in the average cost of accessing an article. For example, LISU (Loughborough University’s Library and Information Statistics Unit) note in their 2005 annual report that such deals were partly responsible for lowering the average cost per title of current UK serial subscriptions by 23% over the 5-year period to 2003/04.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t budgetary problems for libraries, or to deny the benefits of open access, but it would be better to conduct the debate with more rounded data.