Why Science Journals Are So Expensive

Commentary (taken from the journal, The Scientist)

By Alexander M. Grimwade

February 1, 1999

In 1974, the editorial board of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, at the time and still the world's largest journal of biochemistry, gathered in Amsterdam to celebrate the journal's 25th anniversary at a lavish party hosted by Elsevier-North Holland Biomedical Press. Attending the gathering were such legendary figures in biochemistry as Sir Hans Krebs, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the tricarboxylic acid cycle, Fyodor Lynen, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of fatty acidsynthetase, Alex Bangham, "inventor" of the liposome, and many others. At that party, E.C. (Bill) Slater, the managing editor of BBA and professor of biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam, gave a speech in which he wittily projected the exponential growth of the journal for the next 25 years, by which time, he estimated, it would be publishing one volume every five minutes, have a subscription price of several millions of dollars, and a staff exceeding 500. While the growth of the journal has fallen short of his lighthearted projections, it often appears to librarians that the parent company, now Reed-Elsevier, has fulfilled his prophecy on subscription prices.

A recent spate of articles in the press 1, 2 and of reports from various organizations 3 has highlighted once again the difficult problem libraries have with rising journal costs, increasing journal size, and shrinking journal budgets. As the scientific research enterprise has continued to grow, the pressure from scientists to find places to publish their research has grown in parallel. As a result, research journals have continued to proliferate, and the large successful journals have continued to grown in size. Librarians - unable to meet the demands of their clients who want access to a multitude of journals - are crying "uncle" as the commercial publishers have continued to push prices ever higher. What has made matters worse is that it appears to many librarians and scientists, particularly in the United States, that commercial scientific publishing is largely in the hands of relatively few, highly profitable European companies. America, used to being the big dog in most commercial markets, is definitely not the Great Dane in commercial science publishing. How did this happen?

In the late '60's, the rapid postwar expansion of the scientific enterprise was reaching a critical mass. In the United States, research publishing was significantly dominated by the scientific societies, which published large, high-quality journals, often free to their members and at a modest price to institutions. Scientists in Europe were increasingly looking for new avenues to publish their research and U. S. scientists grew frustrated by the limited choice of journals available through the societies. Publishers such as Elsevier and Springer Verlag, which are based in non-English-speaking countries, had already made the decision years previously to publish journals in English, and they had successfully developed some large and successful journals such as Brain Research and BBA. Seeing an opportunity, they hired young scientifically trained Ph.D.'s whose jobs were to develop ties with groups of scientists and the various resurgent European scientific federations. This extremely successful effort resulted in an explosion of new journals and an expansion of existing journals.

In the United Kingdom, that very epitome of late 20th century capitalism, Robert Maxwell was doing the same thing with Pergamon Press, which developed an extensive line of new journals. For reasons that are less clear, the growth of commercial journals in the United States was far more restrained. Commercial U. S. publishers, who came late to the business of developing large numbers of new titles, found the field crowded. This was partly due to the domination of the non-profit-society publishing operations. If one looks at the current roster of journals of high impact, 4 with few exceptions the upper end of the list is dominated by society-owned U. S. journals. Those European journals that appear are published by corporations. (A notable exception is Cell, a U. S.-based privately held journal founded and owned by a British expatriate.)

Scientists rarely make a decision about where to publish a research paper based on the country of origin of the publisher, or the subscription price of the journal. Of greater importance is the perceived prestige of the journal, or its impact factor. Hence, a significant percentage of the papers published in the European journals are of U. S. origin.

A further significant development has been the massive consolidation of commercial publishing into fewer and fewer non-U.S.-based companies - for example, Reed-Elsevier now owns Pergamon, Wolters Kluwer owns Lippincott-Raven, and International Thomson owns the Philadelphia-based Institute of Scientific Information (ISI). Like all commercial companies, the managements of these publishers have a duty to their shareholders to grow their sales and increase their profits. They have long known, to their benefit, that journal pricing can be very elastic. Libraries feel that they are a captive audience, and that they are obliged to pay the price the publishers ask for the journals that library patrons demand.

So the vicious circle continues. Libraries cancel subscriptions and rely on interlibrary loan or tearsheet services. Publishers see their subscriber numbers fall, and to maintain or increase their revenues, they raise the subscription prices still higher.

The libraries, as well as complaining mightily, are now fighting back, and have formed SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, whose aim is to stimulate the development of new noncommercial journals. This effort already has a few startups under its belt. A picture in The New York Times of Dec. 8, 1998, shows Michael Rosenzweig and his wife sitting at home editing their new journal, Evolutionary Ecology Research. Rosenzweig founded the journal after the previous publication he edited was sold from one commercial publisher to another, with massive subscription-price increases imposed at each step. Of course, the reason that Rosenzweig can afford to publish his new journal at one-third of the price of the commercial journal he abandoned is not merely the rapacious pricing practices of his former publishers. It is difficult to imagine members of Reed-Elsevier or Wolters Kluwer editorial staffs sitting at home with their spouses editing a journal over the Thanksgiving weekend. Rosenzweig is working for love, the commercials publishers for money.

Nearly every element in the creation and development of research information is highly subsidized. Researchers are supported with government grants; they write their research papers in their offices with their institutions' word processors; and they send off the manuscripts using their institutional mail services. Using their employers telephones, fax machines, and E-mail accounts, they participate in the peer review process. Commercial publishers and nonprofit publishers both exploit this almost-free source of information; the commercial publishers to the financial benefit of their shareholders and the nonprofit societies for the educational benefit of their members.

Significantly, while the traditional print-journal market is continuing to grow in size, profitability, and acrimony, it is likely that the whole complex edifice will be rattled and perhaps even blown away by the development of electronic, Internet-delivered editions of the print journals - even new journals that never appear in print at all. The Internet will undoubtedly have a major impact on the economics of print-journal publishing, but what that impact will be is anyone's guess. Until that cataclysm arrives, scientists will continue to publish their papers in print, the big European commercial publishers will continue to maximize their profits, and librarians will complain ever more loudly.

  1. "Evolutionary biologist quits editorship of for-profit journal to start less-costly alternative", The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 11, 198, page A27.

  2. C. K. Yoon, "Soaring prices spur a revolt in scientific publishing," The New York Times, Dec. 9, 1998, page D2.

  3. Special Issue on Journals, Association of Research Libraries Newsletter, Issue 200, Oct. 1998.

  4. E. Garfield, "Long-term vs. short-term journal impact: Does it matter?" The Scientist 12[3]:10-12, Feb. 2, 1998.

Alexander M. Grimwade (agrimwade@thescientist.com) is the publisher of The Scientist. He has worked for several commercial publishing companies, including Elsevier, Macmillan Journals, and ISI.

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Updated February 25, 1999