BackTalk: End Free Ride for Costly Journals

By Theodore Bergstrom & R. Preston McAfee

For nearly a century, a symbiotic relationship existed between scholars and scholarly publishers. Academics freely provided their discoveries, work, and time editing and reviewing, and scholarly publishers provided packaging and sold the output of the academics' labors for a modest profit. This benefited both groups. Publishers received valuable input for free, while academics were sheltered from the business end of publishing and received the assembled output at reasonable prices.

In the 1970s, some for-profit scholarly publishers discovered that library demands for journals were unresponsive to price increases and that the publishers could increase their revenues by increasing their prices. This is evidenced by the dramatic disparity between the prices charged by for-profit publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Kluwer and those charged by nonprofit societies and university presses.

A powerful tool

It's time to recognize a simple fact and react to it: the symbiotic relationship between academics and for-profit publishers has broken down. Large for-profit publishers are gouging the academic community for as much as the market will bear. Moreover, they will not stop pricing journals at the monopoly level, because shareholders demand it.

So far, universities have failed to use one of the most powerful tools they possess: charging for their valuable input. Journal editing employs a great deal of professorial and staff time, as well as supplies, office space, and computers, all provided by universities.

In any other business, these inputs would be priced. Academics consent to edit journals and their departments offer them facilities and sometimes even released time from teaching because the goal of academic publication is the promotion and dissemination of ideas. For those journals that uphold their side of the bargain by setting reasonable subscription prices, this policy remains reasonable. However, we see no reason for universities to subsidize editorial inputs to journals that are priced to extract maximum revenue from the academic community.

Recapturing profits

The prices set by profit-maximizing publishers are determined not by costs but by what the market will tolerate. For such publishers, charging overhead would recapture a portion of the monopoly profits for the universities that produce the knowledge. We believe it is justifiable to figure that a journal editor who handles about 100 papers annually would use about 20 percent of an assistant's time along with space and other outlays. In this case, a charge of at least $12,000 per year seems appropriate.

We recommend that universities assess overhead charges for the support services of editors working for journals that have basic library subscription rates of more than a threshold level of cost-per-measured-unit of product. We have created a web site ( that lists the price per article and the price per citation for about 5000 academic journals. Using these statistics, we have constructed an index of costliness for each journal in several broadly defined disciplines. Of course, universities are invited to construct their own measures of journal cost-effectiveness.

We also recommend university libraries refrain from buying bundled packages from large commercial publishers and set clear minimal standards of cost-effectiveness for the journals to which they subscribe.

Go public with academic plan

We suggest an announcement in the form of a list of expensive journals, for which the university will ultimately seek overhead expenses, and an announced policy to discourage (but not prohibit) faculty participation in the operation of such journals. The announcement should specify a time, such as one year hence, at which point the university would actually impose those charges on journals that have not reduced their library subscription prices to the threshold level.

While some have encouraged individual academics to boycott expensive journals, such a challenge should occur at the institution level. The entire university community is harmed by the draining of library budgets and restrictions on dissemination of articles. Moreover, most professors will be hesitant to refuse to work for journals perceived to be powerful, no matter how overpriced. Taking the matter out of the individual's hands means a university can readily say 'expensive journals will pay overhead costs,' and individual professors can then report that fact to journals as a matter of university policy.

Author Information
Theodore Bergstrom is Aaron and Cherie Raznick Chair of Economics, University of California - Santa Barbara. R. Preston McAfee is J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Business, Economics & Management, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. The full text of this open letter can be viewed at

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