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How Journal Prices Impede Access: A Harvard Library Strategic Conversation

Peter Suber from the Office for Scholarly Communication and Ted Bergstrom from UC Santa Barbara dissected factors in journal pricing.


October 21, 2014—A recent Harvard Library Strategic Conversation explored why the prices of journals are so high, why they grow faster than inflation, why they vary widely from publisher to publisher, why different universities pay different prices for the same journal and how these prices impede research and scholarship.

The session was led by Peter Suber from the Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication and featured Ted Bergstrom, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara and a leading thinker on the economics of scholarly journals. Bergstrom also directs the Big Deal Contract Project, which collects data on journal prices, in collaboration with Paul Courant of the University of Michigan and R. Preston McAfee, chief economist at Microsoft.

Bergstrom’s recent research examines price, price discrimination, citation frequency, bundling and the for-profit or nonprofit status of journal publishers. Using an economic model to approximate journal quality based on citations, and a model for the cost-effectiveness of journals based on the price per citation, Bergstrom found that for-profit publishers charge three or four times more per citation as nonprofits, and in some cases ten times more. (Roughly 65% of scholarly articles are published by for-profit companies.)

In addition, for-profit publishers have raised their prices faster than inflation for decades. One reason this continues is the lack of competition. Because different journals do not publish the same articles, they don’t compete on price. They don’t compete for buyers or subscribers, even if they compete for authors. Another reason is that authors don’t have incentives to submit their work to the most cost-effective journals. Instead, they are encouraged at every turn, even by the universities paying the hyperinflationary subscription prices, to submit to the most prestigious journals.

“The power of reputation is tremendous,” said Bergstrom. Academics want their works to appear in the most prestigious publications possible, and the entire scholarly journal publication system revolves around this.

Another complicating factor is that most of the largest and most expensive publishers require nondisclosure clauses in their contracts. These clauses prevent university libraries from comparing the prices they pay, and prevent them from using this information in their negotiations with publishers. Bergstrom, Courant and McAfee pioneered the use of the Freedom of Information Act to force the disclosure of the prices paid for scholarly journals by public universities in the US. Much of their data comes from these disclosures.

The good news is that the remedy for this dysfunctional market is in the hands of academics. They can take advantage of the fact that journals compete for authors. They could submit their work to high-quality, cost-effective journals rather than high-prestige journals without regard to quality or cost-effectiveness. Bergstrom has an online tool to support this kind of comparison shopping. If they want prestige as well as quality and cost-effectiveness, they bring their prestige, as authors and editors, to the journals that help rather than hinder the wide dissemination of research.