Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A licence to print money? The high cost of academic publishing and access to knowledge in Australia


Although scholarly communication and academic debate had previously been taking place in personal communication between scholars such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the first academic journals didn’t appear until the seventeenth century. The first journal Le Journal des S├žavans was published in France in 1665, followed by Philosophical Transactions, which was published later that year by the Royal Society in London. As of today, it is estimated that there are more than 50 million scholarly articles in existence (Jinha, 2010). The academic journal is important in the system of knowledge because it ‘defines the social processes through which knowledge is made, and gives tangible form to knowledge’ (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009: 15). Furthermore, as an important disseminator of knowledge, the academic journal ‘lies at the heart of [the] system of scholarly communication and has stood the test of time’ (Cope and Phillips, 2009: 1).

Throughout three and a half centuries or so, the growth of the academic journal has led to the library fulfilling an important role as ‘a formal archive of the scholarly record’ (Davies, 2009: 224). In the digital age, now more than ever, libraries are ‘playing an even more important role in ensuring access to, and the preservation of, a comprehensive collection of scholarly output’ (Davies, 2009: 214). This is because once created, articles are rarely destroyed and can always be reactivated or retrieved through electronic databases and ‘through citation, each article occupies a position in the architecture that researchers can continue to build upon’ (Jinha, 2010: 258).

Since the 1960s, as commercial publishers have realised the potential profitability of journals, they have sought to selectively acquire the best journals that were previously being published by not-for-profit (or ‘society’) scholarly publishers (McGuigan and Russell, 2008). According to Edwards and Shulenberger (2003: 14), ‘the commercial publishers, which recognized the relative inelasticity of both supply and demand, acquired top-quality journals, and then dramatically raised prices, expecting that they would lose relatively little of the market.’ An expectation which has unfortunately held true ever since.

This acquisition strategy, combined with subsequent merger and consolidation activity, has resulted in ‘a highly concentrated industry’ in which firms that control large portfolios of journals ‘have an incentive to charge higher prices’ (McGuigan and Russell, 2008; McCabe, 2002: 261). In a study for the American Research Libraries (ARL), McCabe (1998) noted that ‘prices are indeed positively related to firm portfolio size [i.e., number of journal published by a firm], and that mergers [of firms] result in significant price increases.’ All of this has resulted in what is widely described as a ‘serials crisis’ whereby libraries have simply been unable to afford the continuous price rises, which has had deleterious effects on library acquisition budgets (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009: 24). In some cases, libraries ‘have been forced to reallocate dollars from monographs to journals, to postpone the purchase of new journal titles, and in some cases, cancel titles’ (Kyrillidou in McCabe, 2002: 259).

According to Shipp (2006: 37), scholarly publishing is ‘an industry unlike any other’. It is an industry characterised by a large number of producers (academics and researchers) who supply a relatively small market which consists of academic and research libraries. He notes, ‘there is little direct competition between the individual products of each supplier and in many respects it has been an undiscriminating marketplace’ (Shipp (2006: 37). The academic community produces the goods, provides editorial and peer review services, and gives away its scholarly content to commercial publishers (Steele, 2012). The publishers then impose restrictive copyright regulations and sell the content back to university libraries at great profit – from the work the universities originally created (James, 2011: 189; Steele, 2012). In the digital age where access and distributions costs are low, the logic of this transaction is no longer tenable (Steele, 2012).

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this essay is to explore international and local debates surrounding the high price of access to knowledge in Australia with reference to the wider international environment. In particular, it will seek to understand how and why academic journal publishing comes at such a high price to the consumer. This will be achieved by looking at the structure of the academic journal publishing sector, the economics of journal publishing, and arguments against the current ‘free labour’ business model. Ultimately, the research will seek to answer the question posed – is academic publishing a licence to print money? Although important issues, this research will not be interested in arguments surrounding open access models, or the fate of scholarly monograph publishing and its implications and challenges for libraries and university presses.

The state of play

The academic journal industry includes both for-profit and not-for-profit publishers (McCabe, Nevo and Rubinfield, 2006: 5). Traditionally, academic journals have been a highly profitable sector of the publishing industry. In 2011, Elsevier, the largest publisher of academic journals made a massive profit of 37%. Springer’s Science+Business Media made 34%, John Wiley & Sons (including Blackwell Publishing) made 42%, and the academic division of Informa plc made 32% (SV POW, 2012). Over time, consolidation through merger and acquisition has led to the industry being dominated by a small number of publishers, which has meant that ‘more and more content [is] in the hands of fewer and fewer firms, thus increasing their market share’ (Moghaddam, 2009: 149). This has particularly been the case in the most lucrative sector of science, technical and medicine (STM) publishing (McCabe 2002: 262). According to Shipp (2006: 38). ‘where there is a high correlation between research and its commercial application’, publishing tends ‘to be dominated by a relatively small number of companies which each publish a large number of refereed titles and often also control the main indexing and abstracting services.’

In a 2006 report on scholarly journal publishing, the Research Information Network (RIN) estimated that approximately 20,000-25,000 peer-reviewed scholarly journals were being published globally, and at that time, had been growing at an annual rate of 3-4% over the past 100 years (RIN, 2006: 5). In its annual report for 2012, Elsevier reported that it published more than 330,000 articles in more than 2,000 journals. According to Springer’s website, it published over 2,200 journals; and in its 2011 annual report, John Wiley & Sons reported that it published 1,600 journals.

In the Library Journal’s ‘Periodicals Price Survey 2013’, it noted that these publishers dominated more than half of their titles (Bosch and Henderson, 2013). In a report on scientific publishing in 2002, Morgan Stanley suggested that academic journals had been ‘the fastest growing media sub-sector over the past fifteen years’ (Morgan Stanley, 2002). This fits with the UK Office of Fair Trading’s report in 2002 that ‘the overall profitability of commercial STM publishing is high, not only by comparison to “non-profit” journals…but also by comparison to other commercial journal publishing.’

Whilst the data is more than a decade old, Houghton (2001: 169), suggests that ‘scholarly content creation in Australia involves up to 200,000 contributors whose activities are supported by annual expenditures in excess of $10 billion, much of which is funded by the government. He estimates that around 25,000 journal papers are written each year. As will be seen, due to bundling practices by commercial publishers and nondisclosure agreements with libraries, it is not possible to estimate how much Australian libraries spend on journal subscriptions; however, Houghton (2001: 170) estimates that in 1998, Australian university libraries spent $94 million on their subscriptions.

Shipp (2006: 38) notes that, ‘[b]etween 1986 and 1998, the median cost of journals purchased by Australian university libraries rose by 226%’, whilst the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 57% for the same period – that is almost an incredible four times inflation! The situation is similar in the United States, where according to Edwards and Shulenburger (2003: 11), for the fifteen years between 1986 and 2001, scholarly journal prices increased by 8.5% per year, whilst the CPI rose by 3.5% per year, ‘which means that journal prices jumped by 215% over the entire period, while the CPI rose by just 64%.’

Knowledge as a public good

It is generally argued that scholarship, and therefore the content of scholarly journals, is a public good (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 12; Odlyzko 1997; Panitch and Michalak, 2005). According to Edwards and Shulenburger (2003: 12-13), a ‘public good is one for which one consumer’s use of the good is not competitive with, or exclusive of, another consumer’s use of the good.’ In this way, a public good ‘is a commodity whose use is non-rivalrous and non-excludable (Dasgupta, 2007: 52). Amongst economists it has long been recognised that ‘public goods cannot be organized efficiently through the private market’ (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 13). The only way to overcome this inefficiency is through collective action in one of two forms: public provision, or publicy-subsidised private provision (Dasgupta, 2007: 52).

So, if scholarly communication is a public good, there should be scepticism over whether an unregulated market is the most efficient means to distribute its product. As has already been discussed, the entry of the big commercial publishers into the system has not only consolidated the industry and raised prices, but

This transformation has largely destroyed the old, university-based system for the provision of a public good (knowledge) and replaced it with an inappropriate (and inefficient, in the technical sense) private market, which lacks any provision for handling knowledge as a public good (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 13).

Free labour?

In recent times, the excessive profits earned by commercial publishers have become the fuel for outrage among scholars who are no longer prepared to support the profits that the large academic publishing houses are extracting from publicly-financed knowledge; that is, public goods. The argument is that commercial publishers should not be making profits off the ‘free labour’ of academics. In Australia, and elsewhere around the world, academics and scientists at government-funded universities and institutions carry out research and write journal articles about their findings. The paper is then peer-reviewed by other state-funded academics and scientists, and then edited and laid out by institutional or university staff. The article is then most likely submitted to one of the large commercial publishers who publishes the paper, and then charges the same taxpayer funded institutions exorbitant fees for subscriptions to academic journals in which the publisher’s contribution to the value-adding process is small in comparison (Hartwich, 2009).

Essentially, the whole process – the research, reviewing and editing – is publicly funded and publishers are selling taxpayer-funded research back to academics and researchers via journal subscriptions. It is an unsustainable model in which taxpayers fund the research, and then have to pay again to read it. According to Gusterson (2012), the inconsistencies in this model originally made sense:

Academic journals, especially in the social sciences, were published by struggling, nonprofit university presses that could ill afford to pay for content, refereeing, or editing. It was expected that, in the vast consortium that [the] university system constitutes, our own university would pay our salary, and we would donate our writing and critical-reading skills to the system in return.

In a plea to the academic community, Gusterson (2012) suggests that the ‘archaic notions of unpaid craft labor’ should be abandoned, and insists on ‘professional compensation for scholarly expertise.’ He also contends that publishers should pay ‘a modest fee to acquire our intellectual content if they publish our articles’ and that the professional associations ‘could recommend standard fees for refereeing articles and for compensating authors of articles.’

Welcome to the Academic Spring

These ill feelings towards the commercial publishers are now spreading across the globe. In 2012, Tim Gower, a respected Cambridge mathematician commented on his blog that he would ‘refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals’. This then gave birth to the Cost of Knowledge (2013) website, in which scholars are so fed up, that at the time of writing, almost 14,000 academics have declared a boycott against Elsevier – refusing to publish, referee and perform editorial work. In frustration with what they perceive as a broken system, academic have been putting words into action and resigning their positions from the editorial boards of Elsevier’s journals. Just recently, Greg Martin, a number theorist at the University of British Columbia, declared his resignation and added his name to the petition. In the words of one commentator: welcome to the ‘Academic Spring’ (Jha, 2012).

A licence to print money?

As can be seen by the above mentioned profits, academic journal publishing is a lucrative business for publishers, and because of ‘free labour’, some would argue it is a licence to print money. In the United States, an annual subscription to Tetrahedron, a chemistry journal, costs libraries US$20,269, and a year’s access to the Journal of Mathematical Sciences, costs US$20,100 (Open Sesame, 2012). Unfortunately, there is little data on the cost of access to academic journals in Australia (Hollier, 2012). The problem with such exorbitant pricing is that library acquisition budgets – particularly in relation to humanities publications – are put under extreme pressure as libraries are forced to purchase subscriptions in the areas of science, technology and medicine (Hollier, 2012).

Budget pressures

In a memorandum in 2012, the world’s richest academic institution, Harvard University, said that it could no longer afford the high cost of academic journal subscriptions. The university told its members, ‘Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers…to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.’ It noted further that:

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these [publishers] now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years (Harvard, 2012).

In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC, 2012), Robert Darnton, director of Harvard University Library, stated that, ‘at the time of the great financial crisis of 2008 here at Harvard, the library funding was cut back 10%, and in that same year most journal prices went up by 10%.’ In the same interview, he suggests that many academic and university departments are ‘complicit in the current system of journal publishing because they expect library services but they don’t necessarily know the full costs.’

False consciousness

In this way, there is an extraordinary irrationality built into the heart of the academic journal publishing system. As already mentioned, academics provide the ‘free labour’ from which the publishers extract their large profits, and then sell the product of the academics’ labour back to them through libraries at extravagant prices. Darnton (ABC, 2012) refers to this in Marxist terms as a collective ‘false consciousness’ among researchers and professors, ‘because they don’t ask where is the money coming from for this article that I must read, and who is the publisher, and how did it reach me?’

More so, these comments suggest a form of commodity fetishism, which according to Marx, is ‘a definite social relation between men…the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (Marx n.d:n.pag). This fetishism ‘attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities’, and has its origin ‘in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them’ (Marx n.d:n.pag). In this way, the conditions under which journal articles are produced and sold back to the academic community are reified.

Lack of price signals

The system is also irrational because it does not allow for price signals to feed back to the consumer (Houghton 2001: 173). According to Edlin and Rubinfield (2005: 442), there is an inherent inability in the system ‘to effectively monitor faculty use.’ Because of this disconnect between the consumers of the product (researchers and academics) and the purchasers (librarians) sensitivity to price is lowered, which results in a market characterised by low price elasticity; or, in other words, consumer behaviour is not sufficiently affected by price signals. Publishers, then, are able to continue to raise prices without having to worry about losing revenue from cancelled subscriptions. When librarians go to cancel a title due to cost concerns they rarely find support from their academic colleagues, thereby making academics complicit in the current system (Pinfield, 2013: 86).

Monopoly on prestige

Consolidation among publishers, combined with the relative price inelasticity of the market, has allowed commercial publishers considerable power to keep raising their prices (Phillips, 2009: 91). Once established in its field, an academic journal becomes a ‘must have’ title for other academics through the reputation that it has accrued. In this way, the articles published in the journal cannot be obtained from any other source, and so the journal ‘operates as its own mini-monopoly in the market.’ 

This means that when prices are increased there will still be a demand for the title because it is not able to be substituted, which adds another factor to the low price elasticity of demand in the market (Pinfield, 2013: 86). The importance of prestige is also important in the promotion and tenure system, with tenure committees only recognising contributions from specified lists of (mostly) top-tier journals (Moghaddam, 2009:150). According to Odlyzko (1997), as the writers of journal articles, scholars

determine what journals their work will appear in, and thus how much it will cost society to publish their work. However, scholars have no incentive to care about these costs. What matters the most to them is the prestige of the journals they publish in.

As has already been discussed above, academics are finding this system untenable. The commercial publishers will only be able to retain their prestige and subscription base so long as they have the support of the academic community.

Electronic panacea?

These days, the majority of academic journals are disseminated online. In 2008, the ratio of print to electronic subscriptions at QUT was 5:95, down from the 30:70 split of 2001 (Cleary, 2009: 373). According to Strieb and Blixrud (2013), in 2012, with the exception of a single publisher, ‘no [ARL] libraries reported that they retained corresponding subscriptions for their complete journal bundles.’ Although there are certain cost advantages to the library in terms of storage, maintenance, photocopying and reshelving, there are additional costs such as the cost of equipment, software, communications and training staff to provide expertise in accessing electronic journals online (Tenopir and King, 1999: 256).
Whilst the digital revolution has brought about the ‘digitization of text, image and sound and the sudden emergence of the internet as a universal conduit for digital content’, it has not brought about cheaper prices for online journals (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009: 18; Tenopir and King, 1999: 256). Given the lower production and distributions costs afforded by technology, it might have been expected that the move to digital forms of subscription would have allowed for publishers to offer lower prices. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

A case study of ecology journals by Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006: 488) showed no reduction in prices for online-only journals. According to Cope and Kalantzis (2009: 24), publishers are still basing their fees on the economies of traditional print publishing. Not only are the profits of the commercial publishers excessively high, but so too are their cost structures, which adds further argument that the market is characterised by monopolistic inefficiencies and demonstrates a complacency which comes from controlling the ‘must have’ prestige titles demanded by academics.

In an examination of the economics of journal production, Odlyzko (1997) estimated that the average cost of producing a journal article is US$4,000. This is calculated on the total costs of preparing the first copy of an article and is referred to in the literature as a ‘first-copy cost’ (Moghaddam 2009: 150). According to King (2007: 90), considering the total cost, 70-80% of the production cost is first-copy cost. When most of the primary work is being done with ‘free labour’, this cost is inexcusably high (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009: 24).

What is the ‘Big Deal’?

Another reason prices are hard to monitor is because of what is known in the industry as the ‘Big Deal’, or ‘bundling’ (Moghaddam, 2009: 149). According to Cleary (2009: 364), a ‘Big Deal’ is defined as ‘an aggregation, package, or bundle of online journals, often the entire collection of a commercial publisher, licensed to libraries for a fixed period of years, via a contract negotiated as a standard price’ (Cleary, 2009: 364). The problem with these deals is that ‘in signing on to the package of journals, the libraries [lose] the freedom to drop individual journal subscriptions for a period of time (generally three years)’, it also obligates them to an inflationary fixed price structure for the package, which is often 7% for the life of the contract (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 14).

In its survey, ‘The State of Large-Publisher Bundles in 2012’, the ARL noted that the ‘the ability to share information about contract terms, as well as pricing information…is dependent on the knowledge of what is in the agreements’ (Strieb and Blixrud, 2013). The difficulty, however, is that the commercial publishers force a nondisclosure clause on libraries, such that there can be no sharing of information between stakeholders. This has been the reason for the establishment of consortium groups which are able to more favourably negotiate the terms of the ‘Big Deal’ for thier members.

Whilst there are advantages in these ‘Big Deals’, for example, increased access to information, purchasing cost-effectiveness, budget predictability, and streamlined workflows, these arrangements are ‘a choice forced on libraries by those with sufficient market power over them’ (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 14). Furthermore, once a library has signed the contract the publisher practically has carte blanche power to continually raise prices above the rate of inflation and exert further market pressure. Even if libraries were able to raise budgets to keep in step with the commercial publishers, due to the inelastic nature of demand in the market, prices would simply be increased to absorb the additional funds available in library budgets – all that would occur is a continual vicious circle of ‘virulent price inflation’ (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 15).

The libraries are trapped because generally it is not possible to substitute one journal for another. Given that faculty members tend to demand the top-tier titles, the only way a library has of responding to increased prices is to reduce spending across the lower-tier titles and purchase fewer monographs (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 15). Unfortunately, what is lost in the transaction is the potential for access to new ideas that are not being disseminated through top-tier journals. In this way, library holdings ‘are less reflective of innovation and more focused on established research in mainstream areas’ (Edwards and Shulenburger, 2003: 15).

Increasingly, the ‘Big Deals’ are negotiated on behalf of libraries by consortia (Phillips, 2009: 91). According to the website of the Council of Australian University Libraries (CAUL) consortium, which represents university and research libraries in Australia, a key objective is ‘maximising the information resources available to researchers, and the facilitation of their access.’ Similarly, the Great Western Library Alliance (GWLA) is a consortium of thirty-three research libraries located in the central and western United States, designed to deliver ‘cost-effective and high-quality information services and resources to its member institutions and their clientele’, and it states that one of the benefits of membership is ‘cost savings related to cooperative negotiation of discounts and licensing terms and conditions.’

According to Strieb and Blixrud (2013), ‘research libraries have been spending millions of dollars per year licensing collections of journals published by just a handful of publishers’, and that ‘there is no question that these [bundles] are the most expensive purchases research libraries are making with their materials dollars.’ Edlin and Rubinfield (2005: 441), argue that, ‘[b]undling can be seen as a device that erects a strategic barrier to entry.’ In other words, ‘Big Deal’ contracts leave libraries with little left over to purchase journals from new entrants.

In 2001, it was predicted that ‘Big Deals’ would result in price increases to already highly priced commercial journals and that ‘an annual price increase of 7% [would] double the cost’ of these deals over a decade’ (Frazier, 2001). According to Cleary (2009: 368), this forecast is ‘only slightly above the 6% average increase’ experienced by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) on its four major deals during the five-year period to 2009. At the time, she noted that the university’s

Big Deals are incrementing at a rate higher than the increases for the library’s resource budget, which has grown by 35% between 2001 and 2008. The budget increase falls well short of the 42% required to keep up with average Big Deal expenditure and erodes the Library’s ability to acquire new resources and formats (Cleary, 2009: 368).

Given the continuous price rises for journals and the competing demands upon library resource budgets, ‘libraries have afforded Big Deals in a trend that cannot be sustained’ (Cleary, 2009: 378). Libraries will need to conduct research into the costs and benefits of unbundling their ‘Big Deals’ from the commercial publishers, and through better use of usage statistics, decide which resources they really need and how much they can afford to pay for them.


In conclusion, this essay has provided a discussion surrounding arguments over the high cost of knowledge in Australia with reference to the wider international context. In particular, it sought to understand how and why academic journal publishing comes at such a high price to the consumer. This was achieved by looking at the economics, structure and market dynamics of journal publishing. It is clear from the above that due to low price elasticity of demand, the big commercial publishers have been able to maintain and extort the market to substantial financial gain. However, this system can only survive so long as it has the support of those who provide the ‘free labour’, which at present seems tenuous and a possible threat to the traditional model of commercial publishing. Whilst this paper has not been focused on arguments over open access business models, if managed correctly, these models could offer some relief to library budgets as access to scholarly knowledge becomes more easily affordable, and in some cases, free. There is also further opportunity for more detailed research into the Australian situation, as most of the data available is dated. Ultimately, whilst their hegemonic business practices are allowed to continue, commercial publishers will continue to reap significant rewards from the system, and until there is significant change, they will continue to operate with a licence to print money.

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