The scientific publishing deluge, part II

Way back before my inexplicable hiatus from the blog, I wrote a post about scientific publishing. Well, it’s time for another long post in my not-likely-to-be-concluded series of moaning about the state of journal publishing and possible solutions. Part I can be found here. Today, we look at the problem of cost with regards to journal publishing. I had originally planned for it to cover more topics, but this one issue has already made this post long enough.

A curious development has occurred in the last years. As I wrote in the first part, the number of scientific journals and articles has increased hugely over the last twenty years. One should expect this to mean higher expenses for academic institutions and libraries, as even though some journals can be left out, higher volume implies higher subscription costs. However, at the same time as the amount of publishing is increasing rapidly, so is the cost of each publication. According to this open letter, published in 1997 (!), the prices of math journals had been increasing at an annual 13 % the preceding couple of years, and according to this report the average annual price increase between 1986 and 2005 was close to 8 % [1]. This is far higher than the average inflation, which has been in the vicinity of 3 % the last twenty years for the U.S., where most journals are published (presently it’s about 0 %).

In the letter, the mathematicians complain about the rising prices, saying:

We mathematicians produce the papers, serve as editors, and serve as referees, all for free (except of course for our support by our universities and employers). Then with relatively small improvement to the product, publishers turn around and sell it to our libraries at (in many cases) a very high price.


Ignorance is not the only issue; we do not bear the costs of our decisions to support high priced journals. Our libraries do, and they have been curiously quiet about twisting our arms to be thrifty. After all, it has been estimated that in 1991 American libraries spent about the same amount on math journals, $70 million, as the NSF budget for mathematics. Furthermore, we are human and like to see the fruits of our labor printed on high quality paper with elegant typesetting; it validates our hard work.

One thing is why this is continuing (researchers not bearing the cost, wanting the prestige), but what’s causing this price hike in the first place? To me, the only sensible explanation is that institutions and publishers are using journals as cash cows. Since libraries are more or less bound to keep subscribing to popular journals, prices can rise to a point just below where keeping the journal is more painful than letting it go. Which obviously is not yet. One of the most interesting findings from the larger study referenced over is that three publishers stand for about half of all journal revenue: Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, from here referred to as Big Science. No other single actor has more than a 3 % market share. Big Science operate with significantly higher profit margins than smaller periodical publishers (36 % versus 4 %, a nine-fold increase) and is even condemned for this by business analysts:

In justifying the margins earned, the publishers, REL [Elsevier] included, point to the highly skilled nature of the staff they employ (to pre-vet submitted papers prior to the peer review process), the support they provide to the peer review panels, including modest stipends, the complex typesetting, printing and distribution activities, including Web publishing and hosting. REL employs around 7,000 people in its Science business as a whole. REL also argues that the high margins reflect economies of scale and the very high levels of efficiency with which they operate. We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process. We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at REL do for a living. We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.

This further strengthens the argument that these function as pure cash cows for commercial publishers.

Of course, all this only covers the cost of subscribing to journals. In addition to this comes the cost of relegating ever more resources to editing and peer reviewing journals (not to mention writing the articles in the first place), which is covered by the academic institutions. The fact that publishers are getting most of the work done for them for free makes the price levels even more baffling.

[1] As to why mathematical journals have had a higher price increase, this could have to do with the fact that natural science publications are far more expensive than social science/humanities publications, so the willingness to pay a lot was already present when the price hiking began.


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