Ongoing crisis in academic-journal pricing is the focus of recent colloquium

Attendees agree high costs of subscriptions are unsustainable and electronic distribution has radically changed publishing

Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown

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.

Prices should be decreasing rather than increasing, since the ability of scholars to publish papers on their own websites has reduced the value of journal subscriptions, Bergstrom said.

In a recent analysis of articles published in economics journals, Bergstrom found that 73 percent of all articles and 100 percent of the papers published in the four leading journals could be found for free online. Not only are papers that are free on the web more often cited than those that are not, but also authors of papers that appear in high-impact journals are more likely to post them on their own websites than authors of articles in minor journals and papers, Bergstrom said.

Publishers keep the prices high by using variable prices, charging more to large libraries with the ability to pay more, and by grouping leading titles together with less valuable ones and offering all-or-nothing deals for a large journal "bundle," said Bergstrom, who maintains on his website a "P. T. Barnum's List" of university libraries that subscribe to the most expensive and least cited journals.

A similar analysis of science and medical journals completed 18 months ago showed that from 37 to 45 percent of the content of three leading journals, Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine, made its way into the free zone in cyberspace, said John Sack, director of HighWire Press, who moderated a panel of Stanford authors and editors. The study corroborated Bergstrom's finding that the higher impact a journal has, the more likely it is that the content would become free from the authors' own websites, Sack said.

Research belongs in the public domain, to advance science and also because taxpayers, including the "guy flipping hamburgers," help foot the bill for publicly funded research, said Patrick Brown, professor of biochemistry and a co-founder and co-director of the Public Library of Science (PLoS). PLoS is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians who believe that the philosophically appealing goal of making scientific literature a freely available public resource also is financially feasible, said Brown, who spoke on a panel that included both commercial and nonprofit publishers.

PLoS, which launched its first journal three years ago, now publishes seven journals and will soon add an eighth, Brown said. The nonprofit publisher relies on funding from charitable institutions, but some of its journals are self-sustaining, and among its goals are to model sustainable business and operation models, he said.

PLoS plans in the near future to debut PloS One, a new portal through which existing open access material will be available. Brown expects it will "fundamentally change how research and ideas are communicated," he said. PLoS also is working on a project to develop open source online journal management software.

The journal's role as a referee in scholarly communication is irreplaceable, asserted Michael Peskin, a professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who recommended that clear distinctions be made between electronic access, open access and the sustainability of journals. The refereeing done by journals is a credential needed by faculty, the university and funding agencies, he said. "You can't credential yourself."

It costs a "non-trivial" amount of money to manage the process of peer review, but journals can be made affordable to libraries, Peskin said.

Brutlag recommended that faculty consider submitting articles to low-cost, high-impact, open access, not-for-profit journals and that they examine the pricing, copyright, open access and licensing agreements of journals to which they contribute.

Stanford does not mandate any position, leaving it to faculty to consider what works best for them, said Lauren Schoenthaler, senior university counsel in the Office of the General Counsel. But she suggested that faculty consider publishing in open access journals or structuring contracts so that a faculty member owns the copyright and licenses a journal to publish an article. If faculty do assign the copyright for an article to a journal, Schoenthaler suggested they consider asking for a license enabling them as the author to post the article on an institutional website, to make derivative works and to make copies for educational purposes, and to ask for those same rights for Stanford.

Slides from many of the presentations are archived at the Scholarly Communication and Publishing Issues website,

The website also contains tools to help faculty authors analyze journal cost and impact, as well as information about the strategies Stanford University Libraries have developed for maintaining their serial collections.