Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The True Cost of Journal Subscriptions

Most of us paleontologists have a handful of journals to which we personally subscribe, usually associated with society memberships. In other cases, we rely upon our institution's library, other local libraries, or the goodwill of colleagues to get access. In these days of tight budgets, many libraries are eyeing journal cuts. But, one might say, "I only pay $100 a year in membership dues--surely the institutions can't be that strapped for cash!" The key thing, though, is that institutional and individual subscriptions are entirely different animals.

To some extent, it is easy to legitimize a higher cost for an institutional subscription. An inexpensive journal is a perk of society membership, for instance--and this low cost is subsidized in part by library subscription fees. Additionally, the journal publishers might have a much slimmer amount of income per printed page for institutional subscriptions (because many, many people would be utilizing the same copy). So, to keep things running smoothly, it's necessary to charge a little more to an institution.

Unfortunately, the problem results when subscription rates increase at a rate exceeding institutional budgets. The fact of the matter is that some journals are just ridiculously expensive for a library to purchase! Just how ridiculously expensive, you might ask? Let's consider the case of the journal Palaeoworld. In 2008, the journal had a total of 264 published pages, and an annual institutional subscription cost of $532. This comes to a cost per printed page of $2.02--no wonder most institutions can't afford it!

You are probably thinking to yourself that I've chosen a ridiculous example--and to some extent I have. Palaeoworld is a relatively small journal targeting a limited audience. Let's look at a "better known" journal--Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. They regularly publish high-impact, groundbreaking research--to the tune of $1.02 per page. The venerable Cretaceous Research costs $1.09 per page!

Then, there are the cases that are so egregiously expensive that it simply boggles the mind. Consider Journal of Morphology. It's not strictly a paleontology journal, but it frequently publishes paleontology-related content--and its reputation is pretty solid. In fact, I've even published there. Yet, a yearly institutional subscription costs $6,031!!! That works out to a staggering $3.89 per page.

Are there any reasonably-priced journals for institutions? Fortunately, there are some, if you dig around a little. Kudos to the folks at Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, with a price per page of 22 cents. And let's hear it for Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, barely tipping the scales at 13 cents per page. As opposed to the examples above, these are society or labor-of-love journals published through relatively small publishing houses. Yet, even the for-profit journal Nature manages 42 cents per page for institutional subscriptions. In my mind, these are all perfectly reasonable costs.

Some savvy publishers have figured out a very slick way to seemingly lower the price--"bundling" packages of electronically-accessed journals together for a group discount. This is somewhat admirable in modestly reducing the overall price per page (for the short term), but it also means that you get stuck with supporting journals of very, very dubious scientific quality. See this news release from Cornell about why it's not a good economic idea in the long-run, too (and a quick internet search will turn up many other examples).

I think that the concept of commercial journal publication is not inherently bad--there are a number of good-quality journals run by such companies. It's just that they're so blatantly overcharging for access to this content! A journal clocking in at $2/page is not sustainable in the long-run. Although I have a strong preference for open access (which someone has to pay for somewhere along the line), I also recognize that some very good closed-access journals provide a valuable service (and see delayed open access as a viable compromise).

So, I challenge you publishing readers (and myself) to weigh all of the factors before submitting that next research paper. What is the impact factor? How respected is the journal? And, will people be able to afford to read it? Let's publish responsibly.

Methodological Notes--I grabbed the most recent available annual, instutional subscription prices from publishers' websites, with rates for US institutions in US dollars whenever possible. I then counted up the total number of pages published in 2008, and divided this by the subscription rate to come up with a value for dollars/page.


Mike Taylor said...

Hey, Andy. I just wanted to drop a note here to say that I really appreciate what you're doing here, and in other recent posts, in encouraging us all to look beyond the obvious factors (impact, prestige, etc.) when deciding where to send our papers. There are plenty of other factors, and their relative importance is changing all the time.

For myself -- and I accept this won't be the right thing for everyone -- I've imposed a policy that none of my first-author papers will go to an journal run by a for-profit publisher (e.g. Elsevier). That's a shame, as it rules out some journals that I know are in other respects run well, but I think it's the right thing.

(Possible exception: I've promised one paper to Zootaxa, and I can't figure out whether its publisher is for-profit or not. I assume not, since it's funding that journal's open access, but I don't know for sure.)

Andy said...

Hi Dr. Mike--Thanks for the compliments! I completely agree that it's necessary to look beyond the surface when submitting a paper. . .the factors are pretty fluid, depending on the paper, stage in one's academic career, etc.

Like you, I'm also moving away from submitting manuscripts to most for-profit journals (although there very well may be an exception here or there, depending on the situation or the paper). At the very least, I'm spending more time these days investigating the publishers. It's pretty amazing what you find out, in some cases!

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting info. What are the numbers for Anat Rec? I sortof consider it an equal to JMorph in some ways. Its kindof shocking how much Jmorph is, though they did give me free color for my 2007 paper. On the other hand, i'm certainly keen on the open access/online pubs and am leaning more towards them regardless of impact etc. I've submitted the past few papers to JVP simply to work w/ the society, but then i shelled out the bucks to host the pdf on my page (making it open) i realize ppl can just email me...but that could add up to like..idk, 5 emails :)

Remember though, the page cost for Nature/Science is low also for the same reasons why we often complain about the amount of content. Cheers Casey

Unknown said...

Hi Casey,

I just checked the numbers for Anatomical Record, and found that it is $6,896 for a year in the USA ($7,064 in Canada & Mexico; $7,148 in the rest of the world). . .with 1,724 pages in 2008, this works out to exactly $4/page. To put this into the most literal of physical terms, libraries are paying $7,000 for a three-inch stack of paper (and temporary electronic access). Perhaps it's a little cheaper when bundled with other journals, but wow!!! I am hoping (really, really, hoping) that someone will leap in and correct me on my numbers, but I have a sinking feeling that a lot of these journals are just profanely expensive.

Now, I'll have to go looking to see what anatomy/morphology journals have more reasonably pricing. . .I'm really disappointed in particular with J Morph and Anatomical Record, because I consider both of them (especially the former) to be really interesting, high-quality publications that hit both the paleo world and the neontological world. And, I have published (or have in press) papers in both. . .

And yes, you are quite right about the reasons behind the relatively low cost of Nature (Science doesn't openly publish their institutional subscription fees, so I can't compare).

Anonymous said...

You might check out Carl Bergstrom's website on the economics of journal publishing:

Anonymous said...

Related link:

Andy said...

Thanks for the links!!! Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Surely Nature can keep their journla chape at least in part becuase 1. They get huge advertising revenues and 2. they can sell a great many copies. You can even get Nature and Science in newsagents, and no science library in the world would not stock them. They must shift orders of magnitude more copies than say even a big journal like JVP let alone soemthing as specialist as Cretaceous Research. Thus they can keep page charges cheap and give better value for money. That's not to say your points are not vlaid, but soem journals can clearly shift the costs around in different ways than others.

Terry Bucknell said...

As a librarian, what I am more interested in more than cost per page is cost per article downloaded. And for publishers like Elsevier where we do subscribe to a bundle that usually works out at $2-$4 per article. Compare that with the cost of purchasing individual articles ($25 or more) and the sense of the 'big deal' speaks for itself. What is interesting is that a lot of the journals that our academic departments have subscribed to for years are poorly used, while many journals that they have never asked us to subscribe to (but that are now available through big deals) are really well used.

Lower cost journals often fail to adhere to the modern publishing standards that we expect. OpenURL resolvers like SFX can deep link into them (if they exist online), they don't provide librarians with usage statistics, they are not archived for the long term in services like Portico.

Nature charges a high fee for an institution-wide online subscription but its usage more than justifies the cost. Nature's business model is very different from most journals. They have high costs because they reject 95% of the articles submitted to them, and they employ large numbers of editors and journalists (rather than using editors who employed at universities).