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How We Got Here: The History of Declining Access

A driving force behind the decades-long price-increasing trend has been a rise in the number of journal titles published by commercial publishers. Over time, a handful of large, multi-national commercial publishers have absorbed a larger number of titles that were traditionally published by independent, not-for-profit entities.  These large commercial players routinely operate with profit margins on their Science, Technology and Medical (STM) journal portfolios in excess of 30% annually1.

This trend has proliferated, in part, because the scholarly journal market is unique in several key respects.  Most notably, it is unique in that it was not originally formed to be a commercial market. Unlike authors of books or music, authors of scholarly articles do not publish their work in exchange for financial compensation.  The authors of the articles – the creators of the work – are unpaid. Authors publish their work so that it can be seen – and used – by the broadest possible constituency.

Scholarly authors must publish their work in a journal to receive the visibility they need – both so that others can build on it, and so that their individual careers can be advanced.  The “publish or perish” culture is still the dominant culture in the Academy. Scholars who want to advance their careers through promotion and tenure, or by receiving grants, must publish in scholarly journals. Thus, the supply of free content available to journal publishers is a rich, seemingly bottomless, resource.

While journal publishers have argued they add significant value to the work created by the authors to justify these practices and the costs to the Academy associated with them, some industry analysts disagree.  For instance, Exane BNP Paribas publishing industry analysts have gone on record, saying:

"In our view, the economic model of journal publishing is based on selling access to an aggregate of non-proprietary academic content. While we understand that publishers own the exclusive publishing rights of scientists work, we do not share the view that they own the intellectual property of their work.2"

The trend of increasing subscription prices and increasing cancellations has led market analysts to examine the current journal publishing market in depth, and to note that tensions between the profit maximization models of many publishers is in direct conflict with the desire of scientists and scholars to maximize the dissemination of their research.  This trend has led to a decrease in the reach of research – a situation that does not serve the individual author’s interest, the interest of the research community, or the interest of the public.  Industry analysts at First Boston /Credit Suisse noted in their Sector Review: Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishing Report: 

[W]e would expect governments (and taxpayers) to examine the fact that they are essentially funding the same purchase three times: governments and taxpayers fund most academic research, pay the salaries of the academics who undertake the peer review process and fund the libraries that buy the output, without receiving a penny in exchange from the publishers for producing and reviewing the content....We do not see this as sustainable in the long term…3

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[1] Exane BNP Paribas Equity Research Report – Media,  Sami Kassab et al, June 1, 2007 

[2] Exane BNP Paribas Equity Research Report – Media,  Sami Kassab et al, June 1, 2007 

[3] First Boston Sector Review: Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishing. April 6, 2004

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