The ridiculous high prices of online journal articles.

July 16th, 2009 | Categories: general math | Tags:

I’m a lucky guy!  I work for a major UK University and one of the perks of the job is that I (along with every other member of the University) get access to a massive array of academic journals and this is close to priceless as far as I am concerned.  I’d rather take a salary cut than lose that particular perk (shhhh, don’t mention this to my bosses) and I don’t even do any formal research!

I have been blogging for almost two years now and one thing I have learned from the whole experience is that the world contains legions of amateur scholars – people who do research for personal rather than professional reasons.  These scholars (and I like to think I am one of them) don’t want to publish papers or get qualifications, they simply want to learn about and discuss whatever subject takes their fancy.  In my case I focus on subjects such as mathematics and physics since they are (and always have been) the subjects that float my boat and they are also the subjects I studied both at school and at University.

Without having the journal access that I get via my employer I would find this hobby significantly more difficult and expensive to pursue.  Occasionally I get to see just how expensive it would be when I come across a journal which my University doesn’t have a subscription to.   One such journal is Physics Teacher and earlier today I wanted to get hold of a 2 page article published back in 1981 – almost 30 years ago.  The cost was $18.

$18 for two pages of work almost 3 decades old and I wasn’t even asking for it to be sent to me printed on gilt edged paper.  All I wanted was a pdf file which would cost almost nothing to send me.  For comparison, that $18 could get me one of several different maths books on my Amazon wish list.  If the journal had made it $5 or less then I wouldn’t be writing this – I would have just bought it.

I know that journals aren’t charities but surely this kind of asking price is simply too high.  If the work had only been published recently then I might be able to understand it – that $18 would go towards paying for editorial staff, peer review, publication etc but surely older articles aren’t worth this amount since all of their costs were covered years ago.

Why not learn from something like iTunes and make the cost of many articles so low that people don’t even stop to think if they want to spend the money or not?  If every article in Physics Teacher more than 25 years old only cost $1 then I (and probably many others) would buy lots of them and the journal would get a decent amount of cash.  Bandwidth is cheap so it wouldn’t really cost any more to send 20 files then it would to send 1 but I am a lot more likely to spend $20 on 20 files than $18 on 1.  Would it be better to charge the higher prices for the first 10 or 20 years from the publication date and then drop to $1 or so for older articles?

I’m not just picking on Physics Teacher though – many other journals seem to have a similar policy.  What do you think?  What would the best business model be?  Would you buy more journal articles if they only cost a dollar?

  1. July 16th, 2009 at 14:54
    Reply | Quote | #1

    The was recently a article in a math education journal complaining that K-12 teachers don’t use research.

    For K-12 teachers (who tend to never have free article access) to read the article complaining about how they don’t read articles, they have to pay $30.

  2. Mike Croucher
    July 16th, 2009 at 14:57
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Thanks for that Jason – you couldn’t make it up :)

  3. MJC
    July 16th, 2009 at 21:25
    Reply | Quote | #3

    A timely post!

    Just came out! and it is free!

  4. MJC
    July 16th, 2009 at 21:26
    Reply | Quote | #4

    p.s. I have found if you email the author of a paper and/or go to their home page the paper is usally available.

  5. July 16th, 2009 at 21:29
    Reply | Quote | #5

    First up I should thank you for an excellent blog. You convinced me to try Sage a while back and switch to it recently! but universities do end up paying a lot of money for full access to the journals, a cost which is most likely carried down the food chain to *all* tax payers.
    Editorial and publishing costs could and should go down with modern computing if not for multiple formats, multiple portals and multiple egos.

  6. Mike Croucher
    July 16th, 2009 at 21:53
    Reply | Quote | #6

    Hi Tej

    You are right – universities pay a fortune for journal access. Far too much in my humble opinion.


  7. Mike Croucher
    July 16th, 2009 at 21:55
    Reply | Quote | #7


    I agree with you and have taken advantage of that fact myself on more than one occasion. Sometimes though, the author is dead! Not surprising really when the paper you are after was published in 1890 or something :)


  8. July 17th, 2009 at 11:18
    Reply | Quote | #8

    Happily, other people are waking to this too. We have the Open Access Movement and Open Access journals. Like this article about rooting the phylogenetic tree.

  9. July 18th, 2009 at 10:37
    Reply | Quote | #9

    Given today’s ease of formatting and transmitting content, setting up community websites, and the advance of ebook readers, I don’t see any raison d’être for intermediaries in publishing. In principle, they could act as some kind of filter or editor but the scientific peer review process is called so for a reason. In an ideal world, scientists (amateur or professional) would put the publishing houses out of business by creating and maintaining credible filters themselves. Surely there could be better use for the resulting “surplus” funds. Scientific knowledge should be as free as open source software. Funny thing is, I recently had a chat with someone in private equity. From his point of view, such publishers are a “goldmine” as they are able to charge “unbelievable” fees to universities and public libraries for content they don’t even have to pay for! I’ve never given much thought to this whole academic journal publishing business but given your anecdote and my recent chat, now I wonder what is the reason they are still in business? Is it just a matter of time that they vanish or is there some way they do add value to the whole scientific enterprise that I am simply missing?