A variety of the low-value coins, including an (historical) Irish 2 pence piece and many United States pennies (Image via Wikipedia)

Editor’s Note: Over the last few weeks, one of the most vexing pieces of misinformation about journal publishing has been cropping up again and again. In stories about the Sci-Hub foofaraw, as well as this article, we are told, misleadingly, that journal prices have increased vastly more than the consumer price index.

There are many problems with this comparison. First, the data used for “journal price” is almost always the list price for a print subscription to a journal. This seems completely incongruous in a digital era, where fewer and fewer libraries or individuals receive print copies of journals.

Second is that hardly anyone pays the “list price”. In the digital era, journals are increasingly purchased in bundles, whether “Big Deals” or collections/consortia packages. These deals offer massive discounts off of the list price, which makes it a poor measurement for what is actually being paid. My understanding is that for some publishers, list price is set more to help a particular journal be allocated a higher relative share within a package price than to reflect what people are expected to pay.

And perhaps most importantly, one has to look at growth in what’s being published. If the number of papers, the number of journals and the number of pages being published has tripled, is it surprising if costs have gone up proportionally?

The only way to get a clear handle on this is to measure what libraries actually spend, and what they get in return. The post below, originally from 2013 by Kent Anderson, looks at one such rare study. The results may surprise you, and I’m a bit confused as to why this sort of data doesn’t receive more attention.

What if the only measurement of energy costs you followed was the price of oil, while everyone was shifting to cheaper and more efficient alternatives? And what if you completely ignored the fact that everything around you was using more and more power — your lights, your phone, your car, your heat, your media center? You might come to believe that energy is getting more expensive, when actually, its price is rising relatively slowly while your usage is what is skyrocketing.

The same thing might be happening with print journal prices and digital journal licenses.

A recent report from Paula Gantz sheds some interesting light on what’s often used to measure prices vs. what is actually driving increases in expenditures. Commissioned by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and its Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) division, the study may be reflexively dismissed by some based solely on its source. This would be a mistake, of course. It’s a well-documented study that raises some subtle and important questions:

  • What if prices of the predominant journal form have actually been falling?
  • What if we’ve been measuring the wrong things, or measuring insufficiently?
  • And what if the growth in expenses are not the result of price increases but a result of the growth in science?

Gantz’s report starts with a fundamental observation — Library Journal’s Annual Periodical Price Surveys are all based on print subscription prices, yet most journals are now basing their core pricing and market presences on their digital versions. Print subscription prices have increased six-fold since 1990. But, as Gantz writes:

. . . using list prices of print subscriptions to calculate the real increase in serials expenditures is a misleading and inaccurate method for tracking how libraries are spending their serials budgets and fails to recognize the increased value they are receiving from the print-to-digital transition.

When the basis changes from print pricing to library expenditures — a better reflection of overall spending — a clearer correlation emerges:

. . . libraries’ spending on periodicals has increased three-fold while their collections have tripled in size through new acquisitions and through expanded content in existing holdings.

Spending three times as much to get three times as much tells a very different story from the “price increases” story. Further facts bear out the hypothesis that the growth in research outputs and researcher population is driving more research publications:

  • Published article output has grown 3.5% to 4% per year since 1990
  • Growth in research spending has been increasing by 3-4% per year
  • In the US, spending on scientific research has more than doubled since 1990 (from $150.2 billion to $400.5 billion in 2010, in current dollars)

This all points to a massive three-fold increase in scientific outputs.

These outputs have been captured in two ways — more journals being published, and more articles being published in existing journals.

Gantz notes how pages have increased in many core journals, doubling in some cases. This has occurred as these same publishers have launched new titles to deal with the growth in scientific outputs.

Ultimately, the root cause of larger information expenditures is a growth in research funding, researcher numbers, and research-driven careers.

In the midst of all this growth, prices have risen modestly. Gantz notes that while the economy in the US from 1990 to 2010 grew at a compounded rate of 66.8% due to inflation, the effective price of an average journal is only 9% higher over the same time period. In the UK, prices have actually gone down by 11% since 2004.

Price increases have been caused by more science, more papers, and more journals, not by price increases in licenses. In fact, per-journal prices seem to have peaked around 2000, and steadily declined from there, as shown by the black line in the chart below.

psp chart

Usage is outstripping articles produced as well, making prices per article within licenses fall on a per-usage basis. This increased usage has led to exactly the kind of behaviors everyone believes is good for science — researchers are reading more, citing more, and citing from more sources. On a cost basis, the price per download in the UK fell from £1.19 in 2004 to £0.70 in 2008.

Therefore, Gantz believes, if we were to actually measure the true cost of licensing information at libraries, focusing on three things — overall expenditures (not just print pricing), the amount of information licenses provide, and usage — prices have actually increased only slightly, and in some cases have decreased.

There are a few interesting dynamics around print prices I believe. Gantz didn’t feel confident speculating about these, she told me in an email exchange I had with her, but I write a blog, so I get to speculate. I think print pricing is a dubious baseline for one or more of the following reasons:

  • the practice among many publishers of increasing print prices rapidly in order to discourage the purchase of print
  • the increase in per-copy costs that smaller print runs dictate — so, as print dies, it gets more expensive to produce
  • the view that print is superfluous given all that online licenses provide, so charging more for it is fair — you really have to want to have it, and if you do, you’re willing to pay a higher price

Print is no longer “market price.” Its pricing is being driven by non-market factors.

Gantz’s analysis raises interesting questions. What if we’ve been misled by following the wrong price trends? What if the strain around expenditures is more about institutions not supporting the growth in science than about publishers seeking to exploit some advantage? What if publishers have been more responsive to the growth in science — by creating new and larger venues for scientists — than institutional information budgets have been?

Gantz’s numbers raise another very important possibility — that publishers are putting themselves in an unsustainable position. After all, if an economy grows by at a compounded rate of 66.8% over 20 years and your pricing only increases 9% per title on average over the same period, the arithmetic is pretty clear — you have $109 dollars to buy $166.80 worth of goods. It may be that the exaggerated pricing of print has allowed the lower prices of digital licenses to some extent.

An encouraging note to all this is that there seems to be an obvious path forward — namely, fewer print titles and better support for valuable and well-used digital licenses.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


33 Thoughts on "Revisiting: Have Journal Prices Really Increased Much in the Digital Age?"

Interesting approach. Does the fact that collections have tripled in size, according to Ganz’s report, mean that collections have tripled in value? I suspect that it doesn’t, and that the “additional” material is not as valuable to library users as the core collection — but I’d be interested in reading attempts to answer that question.

Speaking of evidence — why are the details of the bundles confidential? If the costs and value are indeed reasonable, then greater transparency would build trust between stakeholders.

Not all publishers require confidentiality, and much has been done to shed light on those deals through Freedom of Information Act requests to public universities.

Cost-per-serial going down isn’t very helpful if you are forced into taking big bundles of titles whether you use them or not! It’s how much libraries are having to spend that matters, and that keeps going up. Above inflation. Every single year.

I think this is missing the point of the research, which is that scientific volume/output is increasing faster than inflation. The increase in expenditures above the rate of inflation is volume-based, not pricing-based. Publishers have apparently kept their price increases well below inflation when adjusting for volume (9% vs. 66.8%).

Perhaps universities could restore library funding to the levels it once had (around 4% of the total academic budget), which would make all these problems go away given the huge increases in tuition and fees that have occurred in the meantime (200-500% increases). What’s happening as the volume of research output has increased is that library budgets as a percentage of university budgets have been cut about in half, even as universities are richer overall.


As David noted above, the facts are all in front of us, but we continue to pay attention to other things. I don’t understand why that is.

Big deal bundles often help smaller journals remain viable. Science and scholarly publishing is different from mass media in this important way — one usage (an article on pediatric emergency airway management, a review of mass spectrometry of a rare crystalline structure, an editorial on an obscure policy issue) can make a huge difference. The value of science isn’t determined via a popularity contest. Small journals are often where some of the most interesting science starts. If bundling of sales helps these small journals and nascent societies, I’m OK with that.

Regarding your “I don’t understand why that is.” We are dealing with a social movement. In that context facts are typically artfully selected and opposing positions misrepresented (including mine). But perhaps you in fact already understand this.

The other key factor is that universities continue to devalue their libraries, and instead prioritize spending elsewhere ( There’s a disconnect there, the system is set up to bring in an ever-increasing number of researchers, drive them to increase the amount they publish and need to keep track of, and at the same time refusing to adequately support what’s needed to accomplish the above goals.

The underlying idea, which we also saw at DOE OSTI and throughout the government, is that the Internet will provide access so we do not need a library to do that for us. We called it the “Google will do it” fallacy.

So your “what’s needed” is not a universally shared view, far from it. This is the basic problem.

Measuring journal prices based on list price is like measuring hotel room prices based on the price listed on the inside of hotel doors–the maximum room price required by law in many states. Publishers (like hotels and colleges) use discounting to arrive at real prices. It is possible to find out what libraries pay by getting their contracts, voluntarily or through FOIA requests, as was done by Bergstrom et al.

Bergstrom, T.C., Courant, P.N., McAfee, R.P., and Williams, M.A. 2014. Evaluating big deal journal bundles. PNAS 111:9425–9430.

Rachel and Katharine:

The prices charged for a package or a single volume is not public for the same reason that the price you pay for a car is not public. It is called competition. Why doesn’t the library reveal the price paid and maybe some do.

Rachel who says no one uses what is in the bundle? I am sure if the library produced a readership list of who uses what and if one or two journals were not used at all then those could be negotiated out of the package. The question is how much would the price be reduced and who knows that as soon as X journal is dropped someone would not walk in and say I need to use X!

Only skimmed the article. From what I gather, we’re supposed not to look at total subscription costs, but rather focus on subscription costs *per article* (or per title, which amounts to the same argument: volume increase). Normalizing to volume, so we’re told, makes things look much better for legacy publishers.
Now even though Rachel Oldbridge’s point is of course perfectly valid in this regard, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this calculation actually has some merit (which, on a certain level, it actually has: I’ve used it myself many times). In that case, all we have to do to compare legacy publisher’s subscription costs with modern providers, such as SciELO, F1000 Research, Frontiers, etc. is to take total subscription volume and divide it by the number of articles published in subscription journals. According to this subscription publisher (three years old data, citing Outsell, Inc.):
this amounts to about US$5k per article. Compared to modern providers, who charge on the order of about US$500 or less, this is still overcharging the customer by a factor of ten and more.
In virtually all other areas, public institutions are urged to advertise their needs and select the lowest bidder. If this rule of thumb would hold for scholarly publishing, all legacy publishers would have lost their bid for our publishing needs long ago, no matter how you calculate where the money goes. Lucky publishers that are exempt from such pesky rules put in place to limit the waste of tax-funds…

If universities bought journal subscriptions as they do janitorial supplies, the journals they buy would soon turn into crap.

Oh, you mean like university presses? I’m sure Sandy Thatcher is going to like that comment 🙂

It’s probably worth reading the whole study, it’s pretty short and well-written:
The first point is that it’s more informative to look at what libraries actually spend, rather than list prices for print copies of journals which are increasingly irrelevant. After that point, it does get into looking at what that spend brings in, in terms of numbers of journals, numbers of articles and in terms of usage. It seems reasonable that if you’re getting more, it costs more.

One could also look at the high end PLOS journals which run at a deficit while charging $3K per article, or eLife which spends more than $8K per article, or statements from Cell and Nature that they’re spending $15-25K per article and then one might consider that $5K a fair average across the board for the different levels of service provided. It’s a fair question to ask whether that level of service is necessary, but clearly, given the submission levels that high end journals see, there’s something they’re providing that’s desirable to researchers (the RIN report on UK OA spending reaffirms this as authors seem to prefer the more expensive hybrid journals to the fully OA journals:
I suspect that you would agree that setting priorities for researchers is not something that publishers should be doing, and that the questions you raise are more about academic culture than publishing which is reactive to that culture.

Lucky publishers that are exempt from such pesky rules put in place to limit the waste of tax-funds…

Probably worth noting that not all subscribers or universities are publicly funded, and that certainly in the US, much of what is spent on journals comes from tuition and student fees.

They might be getting more, but much of that is extra stuff they don’t want and their users don’t want. But libraries can’t afford to purchase subscriptions for just the things people want to read because of how the publishers price their bundles versus quoted prices to libraries for selected individual titles.

What you are saying is that the publishers can effectively print money by simply starting up or acquiring more journals to expand their bundle/big deal because look, the library is getting more so we charge more. Regardless of whether anyone at an institution reads those new titles or not.

I’ve seen usage numbers for titles at a large (top 5) research intensive UK university; talk about skewed data! A large proportion of titles didn’t see a single read/download over several years of data that I was provided (which came from the publisher). Many more had the odd use per year. A small minority of papers were widely used/read by students/staff at that institution.

In this instance, the institution was still getting a better “deal” sticking with the collectively bargained UK big deal instead of dropping it and paying the amounts quoted (so not list prices) by publishers for the journals people used more than 1 or twice in a year. But only just.

It is entirely disingenuous to say libraries are getting a better deal. If publishers offered individual titles at reasonable rates, not the inflated ones they currently offer, then libraries would all quickly drop everything but the journals that their users actually used. At the moment publishers are forcing libraries to take bundles filled with rubbish they don’t want. To then turn around and claim the libraries are getting more for their money is spin of the worst sort.

At my current institution, a budget shortfall has meant we’ve just dropped our Springer bundle. We’re buying back subscriptions to a few titles that are very widely read at the institution. Universities are in real financial difficulties; the public purse is empty and there is only so much we can charge from tuition before universities become places for the elites or those willing to risk huge debts. There is nothing but cultural inertia in academia stopping us ditching the traditional STEM publishers. It is they that are gorging themselves at the trough on the backs of public money and student tuition/debt.

From the report:

Article downloads more than doubled between 2004 and 2008 at the 113 major institutions in the United Kingdom…Article downloads went from an average of 432,693 to in 2004 to 1,134,165 in 2008. The number of journals accessed per institution during that same time period increased by 7% per year from an average of 8,391 to an average of 11,058.

Hard to reconcile that with saying that it’s just a bunch of extra stuff that nobody wants. And again, as noted above and by Kent Anderson in his comment, should any blame be placed on the universities for undervaluing and underfunding their libraries while creating an environment that drives a massive increase in the quantity of material being published?

That’s a different point – number of downloads increasing doesn’t mean publishers aren’t padding the deal with useless titles.

I have no doubt downloads are increasing; a mentor of mine during my early academic career and colleague since would routinely and religiously visit his university library each week to peruse the new issues and collect the papers he was interested in, often by copying them. He has now retired.

I on the other hand haven’t set foot in a library to look at a journal for years, and download 99% of anything I read.

Also, isn’t downloading more just about convenience? I mean, publishers keep telling us that producing deadwood copies is not that costly, it’s all the other “value added” stuff they do that costs. If libraries continued with deadwood copies and had no digital, downloads would cease but as many people as wanted would be able to access the content (within physical reasonableness) for the one subscription. Aren’t libraries still buying a subscription and not a pay-as-you go service?

Universities should take blame for perpetuating the reward culture we have based on metrics, which feeds the need (from some quarters) to continue to publish in legacy titles. I’m not sure you can as quickly blame universities for not pumping well-above-inflation increases into library budgets at a time where the public purse is unwilling or unable to support academia to the levels it traditionally has.

As I said above, traditional STEM publishers have no God-given right to our research outputs. it is our own selfishness as academics that perpetuates reliance on your products.

And yes, I know the STEM publishers would all cry foul if major funders insisted all research be reported in their in-house journal, what with all the people that’d lose their jobs and what-not. I doubt any of them will be as quick to reduce the profit margins they maintain to safeguard those jobs by reducing their prices to a competitive point. The system is rigged in favour of publishers of legacy titles and hence they don’t have to compete in a free market. I’d like to see what would happen if we pulled out the rug and forced Elsevier, Springer, et al to compete in a truly open market.

Yes the number of downloads has increased, but there is a difference between the total number of articles downloaded and the number of journals from which those articles are downloaded.

Gavin and Roxanne–
How do you differentiate between raw numbers of more downloads, and:
1) more downloads of the same articles from the same journals
2) more downloads from the same journals that have grown larger, publishing more good articles, hence more downloads
3) more downloads from the same journals and from new journals added to the library’s collection

It would seem to me that under scenario 2 and 3, you’re getting more product for your money.

Let’s be clear–I’m not saying that the study discussed in the post above is perfect and the complete answer to every question, but I do think it is informative and particularly much more informative than looking at the list price (which no one pays) for print subscriptions (which no one buys anymore) and comparing that to the consumer price index (which doesn’t take into account the increase in the number of articles per journal, the increased amount of usage of those articles nor the increased number of journals that are made available for use).

Well, as for prestigious journals charging more, they are at the root of the reproducibility crisis, publishing the methodologically weakest research:
So if anything, these journals are the worst tax-wasters there are, OA or not: overcharging and selling a lower quality product, on average. These journals are like Dom Perignon selling fizzy water for $180 a piece, if you pardon my slight exaggeration 🙂

Even if what you wrote were valid, I have never heard of a rule that says to take the middle bidder, but I haven’t been in every country on this planet.

In terms of publishers setting priorities: since about the mid-1990s, we’ve probably had about as much need for ‘publishers’ as we have had for telephone operators since the dial was invented.

Finally, public/private: Last I checked, several years ago, I admit, publisher income was almost 80% public. Moreover, students are not the public? Is it ok to shortchange students, some of whom go into ridiculous debt to get their degrees? If anything, it’s even worse to waste their money, as opposed to taxes who have at least, to varying extent in different countries, been collected in part from rich people who could care less about wasting their money.

To sum it up, most of what you write here, make it sound even worse than what I wrote, at least for my ears. Thanks for supporting my argument. 🙂

If publishers strike different deals with different schools that is because of the schools, not the publishers. This seems obvious.

Obvious to who? It is the publishers that require ‘secret’ deals. By the way, I still fail to understand the rationale for Acta Materiala (Elsevier) which is priced (2015) at $6.69/article while Journal of Materials Chemistry A (RSC) is priced at $1.08 … other than excessive profits.

I think a given publisher would prefer the same deal with everyone. You do not, apparently. What business are you in?

Why not become a publisher and enjoy such excessive profits yourself?

David, above, you said “Not all publishers require confidentiality, and much has been done to shed light on those deals through Freedom of Information Act requests to public universities.”
The article I’m familiar with, in terms of FOIA request, concludes thus:
“The contracts that we have seen show remarkable institution-specific price variations that cannot be explained by university characteristics such as enrollment and PhD production. Some institutions have been quite successful in bargaining for lower prices, whereas others may not have been aware that better bargains can be reached. Perhaps this variation explains publishers’ desire to keep contract terms confidential.” I encourage everyone to read it.

Bergstrom TC, Courant PN, McAfee RP, Williams MA. Evaluating big deal journal bundles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111(26):9425-9430. doi:10.1073/pnas.1403006111.

You may be mixing up your Davids.

I fully agree that more transparency is a good thing, and doing away with these sorts of secret deals would cure a lot of ills (I recently called for similar transparency for open access offsetting deals here:

I think the other big reform that would solve a lot of problems is more flexibility from publishers in their “Big Deal” packages, offering custom sets of journals to meet an individual institution’s needs rather than “take everything or leave it” sorts of deals.

There are, of course, publishers who practice these things already. The problem is that 1) we are very often all lumped together, tarred by the worst practices of the big commercial players, and 2) there’s a complete disconnect between the people who make use of the journals and awareness (or caring) about these practices. You can’t ask researchers to only read/publish in journals with ethical and fair practices when their funders and those making career advancement decisions tell them they need to publish with the worst offenders.

While it is true that generally the big publishers had added more titles to their packages a simple comparison of cost and the number of titles can be misleading. I have been concerned that with some packages that a notable number of titles seem to be of lesser quality, are not downloaded, not cited and seem to be “stocking fillers” as we would call them at Christmas time.

We need to cast a critical eye on the number and differentiate the value proposition from a sheer number of journals titles. If you have a package say with 15-12% more titles in the past decade but around 30% of the journals are never read is that really better value? We have to pay for the costs of generating these new titles, but there is a different question about whether the cots bring benefit to the scholarly communities or institutional investment in purchasing material for library collections.

My 2 cents worth

I think it’s a good question. If the journal package has 10% of low-usage journals, and over the years the journal package doubles in size, then how do we know if that 10% figure stays static, or if the doubling is entirely due to adding just low-usage journals?

Again, we can’t tell much about this from studies that look at the list price of print subscriptions to journals, and there is likely better analysis that can give us a more realistic picture.

Referring to list price as the print price is misleading. The Caltech Library now buys journals from the major commercial publishers on a title-by-title basis; we do not buy any print, but we do pay list price. We moved out of big deals for the usual reasons that libraries take that step: we saw that the vast majority of the titles in the mega-packages showed low or no use and, within the confines of multi-year deals with locked-in 5% increments, we had no budget flexibility.

There is another, ethical, issue associated with big deals. The increase in scholarship worldwide is obviously part of why there are more journals and more articles. But it could be argued (and probably has been) that the big deal enables or at least accelerates that growth. When libraries sign onto bundled deals, where new journals are just slipped in and touted as more “content,” we are abrogating our historical Darwinian role to filter quality, needed new journals from low-quality, unneeded journals through individual decisions to subscribe or not. So now even the weakest journals survive and get filled with “content,” and we help tell the publishers’ story about getting more for our multi-year total-spend based deal.

Hue and cry around publisher practices is also coming from the content creators, our faculty. They are riled up not just because of publishers’ high profit margins. They look at commercial publishers and see that they’ve been “had.” Their intellectual labor is being exploited. They have always given that labor happily and freely to support the scholarly communication system that benefits them and their peers, but now they see that it is being exploited by rent seekers who own monopolies (top journal brands). There has been a breakdown of trust and good faith. That is a serious cost of the current market, unaffected by efficiently it manages growing publication volume.

There are other perspectives on the bundling of titles. Many society journals may become non-viable if not sold as part of a bundle. Competing individually, without the support of a large publisher and bundled pricing, they may fail. Darwinism in science publishing may not make sense. It is not consumer publishing. Many ideas and new directions start on the fringes, and need to be cultivated. Is it not part of our ethical obligation to nurture new science and new scientific outputs? For instance, Elsevier started when Carl Oppenheimer was fleeing fascist suppression of science, and the company agreed to take his papers and make them public. Their start was laudable. What they’re doing now may be, from certain perspectives, also laudable, as their success makes it possible for many societies to focus on other things and have successful publications that reach larger audiences than they would alone.

The hue and cry is being fed, I believe, by people who are pointing at the wrong things. I would recommend to you “The Economics of Science” by Paula Stephan. Scientists have major incentives to make their research reports public. Imagine if CRISPR were developed in secret and precise genetic reprogramming were secretly held by a company or government, rather than known to an entire scientific community and largely available? Is that a better world? Publishers court risk for authors and readers. If they succeed (manage risks well and develop products people appreciate and find valuable), that’s laudable.

Constantly pitting libraries and publishers against one another while universities train more scientists and governments encourage more research but neither party holds up their end of the bargain by funding science and the reporting of science appropriately is the real problem. Young scientists are really feeling the pinch. It’s a shame.

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