Journal price hikes force libraries to cut collections

by Sam Kean

One issue of the scientific journal “Brain Research” costs about $137. Not bad, except “Brain Research” publishes 124 issues annually, for a total cost of more than $17,000 for one journal subscription. During the past two years, the price increased more than a thousand dollars each year.

A “quick and dirty” search through just the biomedical library’s journal selection revealed 11 journals cost more than $5,000 each, said Biomedical Library manager Marbeth Austin. And prices are only going up.

“We’re getting killed by price increases” across all scientific and engineering fields, said University librarian Tom Shaughnessy.

The gap between technical journal price increases of 10 percent each year and inflationary budget increases of only 3 percent leads to cutbacks in the number of journals, he said.

Since 1995-96, University libraries have cut nearly 450 technical journals – nearly one in five – to keep up.

Humanities and social sciences are indirectly feeling a pinch too. Because library budgets are fixed, Faculty Senate Library Committee Chairman Peter Firchow said some non-technical journals – whose prices have not increased at a great rate – have been eliminated as well.

Janice Jaguszewski, coordinator for collection development in science and engineering, said the library system faced losing more than 200 journals last year alone, but various officials were able to “piece together some funding.”

However, journal prices keep increasing and libraries face the same problem this year, especially with the state budget still undecided.

Higher publishing costs are the most cited reason for price jumps. Postage rates have increased, as have the costs of paper and producing the required pictures and diagrams in scientific literature.

Plus, journals expanding online services and archives need to invest in new technology. In some ways, online journals are making the situation worse because prices increase with limited additional benefits, Austin said.

Despite these realities, some faculty remain unaware of the situation.

Overall, the situation seems fraught with inconsistencies. For example, the price increases have accompanied an explosion in scientific literature.

But because new journals are often extremely specialized, competition is weak, said Research Vice Provost Victor Bloomfield.

To the publishers’ credit, Bloomfield noted, without commercial publishers some journals might not even exist.

The larger issue is scientific idealism versus realities of commerce. National leaders in the campaign against publishers claim the scientific ideal of sharing knowledge is “under siege.”

But commercial publishers say they must secure a profit and answer to shareholders who sponsor them – facts they admit with increasing frequency.

So far, said Bloomfield, “market forces haven’t worked well. But they can, because there are alternatives.”

Nonprofit publishers do exist, and some scientists have started independent or online journals. But new journals are not automatically equivalent to well-established ones – a factor researchers must consider when displaying their findings and seeking tenure.

As a last resort, some scientists remove themselves from positions on commercial-journal editorial boards. Bloomfield himself has been on the board of a biopolymer journal for years but said he plans on stepping down by next year.

A concentrated effort like this, Bloomfield said, can “take the power of the press into our own hands.”


Sam Kean encourages comments at [email protected]