ARL serials and monograph inflation
ARL serials and monograph inflation

The essential core of what has been called “the serials crisis,” or more generally, “the crisis in scholarly communication,” is the fact that journal prices have been outstripping general inflation.

Almost every library website with a scholarly communication page links to a version of the graphic produced by the Association for Research Libraries (ARL).  The comparisons highlighted in these graphs are library costs and expenditures against the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The journal price inflation comparison routinely shows up in Open Access resolutions, such as the one recently voted down by faculty at the University of Maryland.  The comparison is more than just a simple statement of fact — it forms the basis of an argument that publishers are engaged in profiteering and a pronouncement that the current model of publishing is unsustainable, or more emphatically stated, “broken”.

All of this hinges upon the validity of comparing library costs and expenditures to the Consumer Price Index.  Let’s explore the CPI for a moment.

Produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index was instituted during the First World War as a way of calculating and indexing the costs of raising a family.  Annual CPI data are available back to 1913.  The cost of food, rent, clothing, heating oil, and home insurance all factor into the CPI, as do the prices of used cars, gasoline, newspapers and magazines, a can of tuna and a pair of jeans.  Yet the basket of goods that is used to calculate the CPI bears little relationship to the price of producing academic journals.  It is surprising that the CPI has been accepted so uncritically as a valid basis upon which journal prices are compared.

The Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) is a well-studied index that tracks the goods and services purchased by colleges and universities each year.  The HEPI tracks educational expenditures such as faculty and administrative salaries, fringe benefits, materials, and utilities.  Faculty salaries make up the largest (36%) of the index weight.

It should be no surprise that the costs of running centers of higher education have been exceeding the general inflation rate, with tuition rates responding in kind. According to statistics gathered by the non-profit College Board:

Over the past decade, published tuition and fees have risen at an average rate of 4.2% per year after inflation at public four-year institutions, compared to 4.1% in the preceding decade and 2.4% from 1978-79 to 1988-89.

For those fortunate enough to be admitted to an elite school, tuition increases have been even higher.   While some blame faculty, some of whom are recruited like top athletes and are paid like rock stars, librarians have not been doing poorly themselves.  The ARL’s Annual Librarian Salaries indicate that librarian salaries routinely outperform general inflation: 4.2% in 2004-5 and 3.7% last year.  If we plotted academic librarian salaries against the CPI, we could claim that the profession was in crisis, that salary growth was unsustainable, and that the system was simply broken.

Industrialization and globalization have lowered the price of clothing, consumer electronics, and children’s toys,  yet it hasn’t resulted in reducing academic and professional salaries.

The journal publishing industry has gone through several rounds of automation with the goal of increasing efficiency.  Human costs, which make up a huge component of journal production, are much more difficult to contain.  Add to this the fact that the total number of scientific articles continues to increase at 2.3% per year, according to the National Science Board’s Science and Education Indicators.

If we wish to involve humans in the journal production process, we’re going to have to accept increases above the cost of general inflation.

By adopting the CPI as a general frame of reference, almost any industry that requires huge professional worker input will look like it is spiraling out of control.  Perhaps this is the reason the ARL uses the Consumer Price Index as a reference for journal prices when it could have used the Higher Education Price Index, the Producer Price Index, or an index which more closely resembles professional knowledge production.

The CPI is an excellent tool for collective salary bargaining, for estimating who should be eligible for food stamps or free school lunches.  It is a very bad tool for measuring the purchasing power of libraries or justifying a reinvention of the journal publication system.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


5 Thoughts on "The Consumer Price Index and the Argument for OA"

Phil, An unusual take on the validity of the ‘serials crisis’. I take a simple view, and it heads in the same direction. There is no ‘serials crisis’. More accurately it is a library crisis. There are three players in the serials business: publishers, authors and libraries. Only the libraries see a ‘crisis’. That’s why when open access is justified on this basis, it doesn’t take off. There are better reasons for open access.

I agree that there is no serials crisis as depicted by librarians once they take into account the growth in the scientific literature. I once took a look at JBC over the same time period used by ARL and discovered that their prices had increased by 400%. However, when I looked at the increase in pages published, I discovered the same 400% increase. I would be interested in seeing how the growth in pages parallels the increase in prices for a wide-range of journals, especially those of society publishers.

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