Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline has been blogging intermittently about the scientific journal publishing model, which sometimes seems insanely archaic now that we live in an age where so much information is practically free.
It's seemed that way to this home-based end user for years. Sure, they have to make a profit on their content somehow, but I've noted before that they seem to be losing out on some income because they don't have a market segmentation mechanism by which persons unaffiliated with an institution can pay a small fee to download single articles for personal use. Currently articles in ACS (American Chemical Society) publications cost $35 each, and those in Elsevier publications cost $31.50. But millions of people attempt to download articles from scientific journals each year, then don't do it when the pay wall pops up: JSTOR reported 150 million attempts per year. You'd think that if they could charge single-digit dollars per article, some of those 150 million potential users would have paid the fee to get their article, and some of them might have come back to buy more.
When you consider how much of the research that appears in these journals is performed at taxpayer expense, with federal grants and often in state-supported institutions, you have to wonder: Why does the individual have to pay quite so much money to the journal publisher to access the results?
But it seems that individual academics and universities, too, are rebelling against the standard journal model. Earlier this year, scholars organized a boycott against the large publisher Elsevier. (Here is a post at Inside Higher Education explaining the reasons.)
Anyway, blogger Lowe points to this post from Jenica Rogers, a librarian at SUNY-Potsdam, explaining why her institution is walking away from ACS -- dropping subscriptions to the ACS online journal packages.
In our discussions, the librarian stakeholders noted our support for this approach, but argued that while their tiers are reasonable and based on arguably sound criteria, the base price underlying those steps is unsustainable and inappropriate. (In the case of SUNY Potsdam, the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.) We also learned that their base price and pricing model, when applied to much larger institutions, did not produce the same unsustainable pricing...
Given that there was no apparent ACS-based solution to our budget crunch in the face of what we feel is unsustainable pricing, we went to our Chemistry faculty and discussed all of this with them. ... I laid all the facts out. We described our subscription history in support of their scholarship, teaching, and learning needs, pulled out the costs for ACS content when we first subscribed in the early 2000s and referred back to the discussions we had then... laid out the current cost of ACS publications and the price increases over the past five years, and estimated what our 3-year prices would be. Based on our discussion, I think that some of our faculty were surprised, some seemed resigned, some were horrified, and they were all frustrated by what seemed to be a plate full of bad options. However... I believe that we all agreed that this goes beyond having a tight campus or library budget: this is simply not appropriate pricing for an institution like ours.
One of the things that makes this situation egregious is that ACS is not just an academic society and a publisher, it is an accreditation body for university chemistry programs -- and indeed, they can set journal subscription access as a condition on accreditation.
If enough institutions simply refuse to play the game, the numbers will have to change. Meanwhile, it is one small part of the cost of higher education -- and in this case, it is not an expensive frill like a fancy rec center or a cushy dorm, but an unsustainable price charged by private corporations in order to provide a service that is part of the core mission of a university.