The Economics of Journal Publishing


Case study: Ecology

Prices and publishers

Who publishes the top tier?

Cumulative plots

Estimating circulation

Journal numbers over time

Comparing other fields

Prices and publishers across disciplines

Cumulative plots across disciplines

Top science journals


Economics of ecology journals

Will open access be able to compete?

Costs and benefits of site licenses

Electronic subscriptions: A boon for whom?

Value and price by journal

Contact Information

Carl T. Bergstrom

Department of Biology
University of Washington
Box 351800
Seattle, WA 98195-1800

The economics of scholarly journal publishing

Carl T. Bergstrom and Theodore C. Bergstrom

This report was originally posted Autumn, 2001. We also put together a five-year update: Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006).

There is a startling difference between the prices that university libraries must pay for academic journals owned by commercial publishers and the prices for journals owned by professional societies and university presses.

For example, in the fields of economics and ecology, the average institutional subscription price per page charged by commercial journals is about 5 times that charged by non-profit journals. These price differences do not reflect differences in quality as measured by number of recorded citations to a journal. For commercial journals the average price per citation is about 15 times that for non-profit journals. Similar price differentials are found across a wide variety of scientific disciplines. [ Table. ]

These price differences have grown rapidly over the past 15 years. In 2001, the average real (adjusted for inflation) price per page of journals owned by commercial publishers has approximately tripled, while that of non-profit economics journals has increased by "only" 50 percent.

Over the same time interval, the number of journals published has increased dramatically. In 1980 there were about 120 economics journals, half of which were commercial and half non-profit. In 2000 there are almost 300 economics journals, two-thirds of which are owned by commercial publishers.

Faced with a proliferation of new journals and a rapid increase in prices, since 1985, libraries have increased their real expenditures on serials by an average of 4.6 per cent (8 percent unadjusted for inflation) since 1985. Despite this expenditure increase, university library collections have been able to provide access to an ever-decreasing fraction of published materials. While the number of journals published has roughly doubled, the number of journals held by university libraries has actually decreased by about 7 percent and the number of monographs have decreased even more rapidly. [ Data sources. ]

In these pages, we will explore the workings of the scholarly journal market and attempt to answer questions such as the following: Why are for-profit publishers able to charge the prices that they do? What will happen as the transition from paper to electronic distribution progresses? What can academics do to ensure the broadest-possible distriubtion of scholarly publications and to protect the research budgets of their institutions?

We will begin with a case study from the research area of ecology and then compare the journal market in this field to that in several other academic disciplines. We will apply some bits of game theory and basic microeconomic theory to understand what is happening in these markets. Finally, we will turn to the market for electronic site licenses - what are rapidly becoming a major component of university budgets - and explore under what circumstances site-licensing programs will actually benefit the academic commuity. 

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Last modified October 13, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Carl T. Bergstrom