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.
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.