The term serials crisis has become a common shorthand to describe the chronic subscription cost increases of many scholarly journals. The prices of these institutional or library subscriptions have been rising much faster than the Consumer Price Index for several decades, while the funds available to the libraries have remained static or have declined in real terms. As a result, academic and research libraries have regularly canceled serial subscriptions to accommodate price increases of the remaining current subscriptions.
Rising subscription prices
The subscription prices of scholarly journals have been increasing at a rate faster than the inflation rate for several decades. This chronic inflation is caused by several factors. Each journal title publishes unique research findings and as a result is a unique commodity that cannot be replaced in an academic library collection by another journal title, such as a less expensive journal on the same subject, as one could with commodities. The publisher thus has the ability to act as a monopolist. Scholarly journals vary greatly in quality as do the individual articles that they publish. The highest quality journals are often expected and demanded by scholars to be included in their institution's library collections, often with little regard or knowledge about the subscription costs. Traditional metrics for quality in scholarly journals include Impact Factor and Citation count as recorded by Journal Citation Reports. This leads to price inelasticity for these higher quality journals.
Another possible set of factors in this situation includes the increasing domination of scholarly communication by a small number of commercial publishers, whose journals are far more costly than those of most academic societies. However, the institutional subscription prices for journals published by some academic society publishers (see below) have also exhibited inflationary patterns similar to those seen among commercial publishers.
The earnings of the American Chemical Society (ACS), for example, is based, in large parts, on publications. In 1999, the income of the ACS were $349 million, where $250 million came from information services. Due to a 2004 House of Commons report (The Science and Technology Committee), the ACS is one of the driving forces of the STM ( Science, Technology, Medicine) serials crisis. Due to the same report, the crisis started around 1990, when many Universities and Libraries complained about the dramatic inflation of STM subscription prices especially for the flagship JACS, which is exclusively sold as a bundle with all other ACS journals. The report further complains that
- "the no–cancellation clauses attached to their multi-year multi-journal deals with Elsevier and the American Chemical Society had led to uneven cancellation of titles to make the budget balance. The result is that the little-used Elsevier and ACS titles must remain in the portfolio while the more popular titles by other publishers are cancelled."
A typical inflation rate for 2008 included an increase of the bundle price of around 40% (from 22800 USD to 30200 USD) with a perspective of more than a doubling (to 55000 USD) in the next three years.[needs update]
Trends in scholarly publishing
An additional problem is a dramatic increase in the volume of research literature and increasing specialization of that research, i.e. the creation of academic subfields. This includes a growth in the number of scholars and an increase in potential demand for these journals. At the same time, funds available to purchase journals are often decreasing in real terms. Libraries have seen their collection budgets decline in real terms compared to the United States Periodical Price Index. There are other library expenditures such as computers and networking equipment that have also had a negative impact on scholarly publishing. As a result of the increasing cost of journals, academic libraries have reduced their expenditures on other types of publications such as scholarly monographs.
Currency exchange rates can serve to increase the volatility of subscription prices throughout the world. For example, many of the publishers of scientific journals are in Europe and do not set prices in United States dollars, so the prices of such scholarly journals in the United States vary in relation to exchange rate fluctuations.
Solutions, alternatives and developments
There is much discussion among case librarians and scholars about the crisis and how to address its consequences. Academic and research libraries are resorting to several tactics to contain costs, while maintaining access to the latest scholarly research for their users. These tactics include: increasingly borrowing journals from one another (see interlibrary loan) or purchasing single articles from commercial document suppliers instead of subscribing to whole journals. Additionally, academic and research libraries cancel subscriptions to the least used or least cost-effective journals. Another tactic has been converting from printed to electronic copies of journals, however, publishers sometimes charge more for the online edition of a journal, and price increases for online journals have followed the same inflationary pattern as have journals in paper format. Many individual libraries have joined co-operative consortia that negotiate license terms for journal subscriptions on behalf of their member institutions. Another tactic has been to encourage various methods of obtaining free access to journals.
Developed in part as a response to the serials crisis, open access models have included new models of financing scholarly journals that may serve to reduce the monopoly power of scholarly journal publishers which is considered a contributing factor to the creation of the serials crisis. These include:
Open access journals where the reader of a journal or the library at their institution does not need to pay a subscription or a pay per-view charge to read the articles published in that journal. This free access is achieved through a number of basic models. First is the publication fee model in which a funding agency, a university, or the author(s) of an article pays a publication fee per article to ensure that it will be available to readers free of charge. Sometimes these journals will waive the publication fee if the author cannot pay. Secondly, some open access journals receive institutional subsidies or are grant funded, which makes it unnecessary for the journal to charge publication or subscription fees. This reliance on money from interested parties could conceivably lead to journals being forced to follow the agenda of the funding agency or government and thus may compromise editorial independence; however, much of the research conducted and submitted to scholarly journals throughout the world is funded by the aforementioned interested parties. A third model is for publications to be funded by advertisements if readership of the journal is sufficient to recoup costs.
Hybrid open access journals are traditional subscription-based journals that permit authors to pay a fee to make their article available free of charge to the reader. This gives the author the advantages of open access to their published research but subscribers continue to pay subscription fees for such journals to gain access to the restricted content. This model has been adopted by many of the commercial publishers and large scholarly societies. It has the potential to increase revenues for the publisher, while at the same time subjecting libraries to continuing price inflation. This model doesn't serve to end the serials crisis—unless the subscription price for a hybrid journal should decline in some fashion related to the proportion of the journal that has become open access. Oxford University Press announced on July 25, 2007 price reductions for 2008 calendar year online-only subscriptions for its "Oxford Open Journals", however, in many cases these subscription prices are still higher than 2007 calendar year subscriptions. The price reductions are only a reduction compared with the price Oxford University Press would have charged in the absence of open access content. Springer Verlag has outlined its intention to develop pricing based on changes in the proportion of Open Choice (TM) articles as compared to the subscription model articles. Hypothetically, this model could serve as an intermediate step in a switch to the widescale adoption of the open access journal model.
Delayed open access journals are traditional subscription-based journals that provide open access after an embargo period from the initial publication date. A subscription or an article purchase would be required to read the materials before the end of this embargo period. These journals may additionally deposit their publications in open repositories. Many scholarly society journals have adopted this model. While this model increases access to scholarly research literature for many, academic and research libraries that continue subscriptions end up paying for access to a rolling file of the most recent material of the embargo period only.
- Academic journal publishing reform
- List of public domain resources behind a paywall
- Library and information science
- Open access
- Elsevier#Criticism and controversies
- United States v. Aaron Swartz
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