Skip to Main Content

Scholarly Communication Toolkit: Economics of Publishing

Economics of Scholarly Publishing - The Serials Crisis History and Data

Libraries and the faculty and institutions they serve are participants in the unusual business model that funds traditional scholarly publishing. Faculty produce and edit, typically without any direct financial advantage, the content that publishers then evaluate, assemble, publish and distribute. The colleges and universities that employ these faculty authors/editors then purchase, through their libraries, that packaged content back at exorbitant prices for use by those same faculty and their students. This unusual business model where the "necessary inputs" are provided free of cost to publishers who then in return sell that "input" back to the institutions that pay the salaries of the persons producing it has given rise to an unsustainable system begging for transformation. 

The subscription prices charged to institutions has far outpaced the budgets of the institutions' libraries who are responsible for paying those bills. Years of stagnant university funding and the economic downturn rendered many library budgets flat, while journal pricing continued to rise. This problem became known as the "serials crisis." Another element of the serials crisis that has been subject to discussion and debate has been the "big deal," which is when large commercial publishers sell their complete list of titles to libraries at less than what a la carte pricing for titles would be individually. Some postulate that the big deal has helped negate the effects of the serials crisis while others argue that it actually hurts more than it helps.

Over the years, librarians, publishers, scholars, and economists have debated the causes and status of as well as the solutions to the the unusual economic system funding journal publishing and the resulting serials crisis. Some of this debate and the data presented to support the positions of stakeholders in scholarly publishing are presented below. You can also find further reading on the serials crisis on DigitalKoans

A primary response to the serials crisis has been the development and grown of open access publishing. Several publishers and groups have experimented with alternative journal publishing schemes. Open access publishing in general, as well as the economics of open access, can be found under the Open Access section of the toolkit.

Viewpoints on the Serials Crisis

Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing - 2003 report by the Wellcome Trust that concludes that the publishing of scientific research does not operate in the interests of scientists or the public good, but rather is dominated by a commercial market intent on improving its market position.

The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing (Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, Winter 2008)

The Big Deal: Price Not Cost (InfoToday, 2011) 

The Big Deal's Damage (Library Journal, 2013) - review of book by Walt Crawford that proposes the big deal was not a solution to the serials crisis but actually did more damage.

The Serials Crisis is Over (2013) - blog post by librarian Jeffrey Beall contending that the serials crisis is over. A response ("Of course the serials crisis is not over!") to this blog post was written by Mike Taylor.

Data on Serials Pricing and the Serials Crisis

Fracking the Ecosystem: Periodicals Price Survey 2016  - each spring, Library Journal releases a report and survey on serials pricing and the trends/issues/responses to the continuing problem of library budgets and the rising cost of journals. This link is to the 2016 report, but older years are also available.

Evaluating Big Deal Journal Bundles (PNAS, 2014) - data collected by authors through FOIA requests demonstrate price discrimination frequently occurs at the hands of for-profit publishers.

Deal or No Deal? Evaluating Big Deals and Their Journals (College & Research Libraries, 2013)

ARL Expenditure Trends, 1986-2012 - demonstrates how the cost of materials, including serials and monographs, has far outpaced library budgets.

Ted Bergstrom's Research on Journal Pricing -- economist Ted Bergstrom has published numerous papers. He has created databases analyzing journal cost-effectiveness (comparing citation rates to journal prices) and big deal contracts. His research and resources are linked to his website.