Are Institutions Paying Fair Prices for Academic and Scientific Journals?
Well, some might say that the obvious answer is no and has been for a very long time. Institutional subscription rates for scholarly journals are, after all, notoriously high as a general rule, but a recent study indicates that more troubling trends are revealed by comparing electronic journal prices and value among publishers and universities. A brief article in the Guardian outlines some of the results at http://bit.ly/1jvrLaU and provides a link to the original PNAS article for full details of the study.
The study examines the cost of subscription bundles for electronic academic and scientific journals and measures value for money by a (somewhat questionable) cost-per-citation formula, but also considers other factors in relation to pricing, such as a university’s research activity and annual enrolment, as well as the number of PhDs it grants. Prices for subscription bundles tend not to be publicly disclosed by the large journal-publishing firms, and ‘explicit “nondisclosure”’ clauses in contracts prevent universities from revealing how much they are paying, so Freedom of Information Act requests had to be used to obtain copies of the contracts between publishers and a number of universities in the United States. These contracts reveal that major for-profit journal-publishing firms are providing less value (sometimes far less value) for money than non-profit publishers of journals are, especially in bundle subscriptions purchased by the larger research universities. The prices charged for these bundle subscriptions vary from institution to institution, as do annual increases for subscriptions (which can be incredibly high). Sometimes the discrepancies make sense: the large journal-publishing companies, for example, reduce their prices for smaller low-research institutions much more than the non-profit journal publishers do. At others, however, the differences seem illogical and unfair: in some cases, for instance, universities with a high enrolment that grant many PhDs pay significantly less than universities with lower enrolment and fewer PhDs, although the bundles purchased are identical. It is clear that certain universities have successfully bargained for better prices and lower annual increases, while others were unaware they were able to do so, which, as the authors of the PNAS article suggest, may well explain why some publishers want to keep contract terms confidential.
It comes as no surprise that the large journal-publishing companies are reporting significant annual profits, and scholarly recognition of their journals as ‘the right ones’ to publish in for career advancement ensures that they will continue to do so in the present system, but at what cost to the academic and scientific communities? Many university libraries are now choosing less than full access to electronic journals to cut costs, thereby limiting the resources available to their students and faculty. Meanwhile, tuition rates are rising, classes are growing larger and students are graduating with huge debts. Universal open access to scholarly journals, boycotting journals published by for-profit firms in favour of those provided by non-profit publishers, and even charging commercial publishers for the reviewing and editing work done by university faculty have been suggested as possible solutions, but these seem unlikely to occur quickly. For the present, perhaps something as simple and attainable as publicly disclosed reasonable prices applied in a consistently fair manner would help balance the financial scales a little and better promote what remains for many academics and scientists the central purpose of scholarly journals – to share research.
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