Whatever happened to those insanely expensive academic-scientific journals?

As college student in the late 70’s I remember talking with a university librarian at the University of Maryland in College Park, who told me some of the more esoteric science journals cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per year to subscribe to, and this was about 30 years ago!

When I asked why I was told the special typesetting needed and overall publishing cost for a scientific journal was very high, and the circulation was typically quite low, so the cost per journal was very high.
Whatever happened to these incredibly expensive printed journals? Has the internet killed them? Are they still absurdly expensive?

They are still absurdly expensive. Some of the ACM journals I subscribed to ran $300 per year, and those are on the cheap end.

More esoteric scientific and math journals can cost around $500 per year or more. Most of the stuff is available online these days, but you still have to pay for access. It’s a lot cheaper than getting the print version, though.

Some of the information security publications I get have “cover” prices of $10-15 an issue. As a monthly, that would come to $120-180 a year, but one of them is a weekly, which would be over $500 a year. <yikes!>

The strange thing is that I don’t even know how one might go about buying a subscription - almost all of them are free to the trade. AFAIK, the cover prices exist only to justify their advertising rates.

They’re very much alive and kicking. The prices for institutional subscriptions can be in the tens of thousands of dollars for the more prestigious journals.

Physical Review B can cost you up to $11,365 per year.
Physical Review subscriptions (PDF).

Nature is $2370 per year.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

the subscriptions can be supplemented by the electronic version, or you can have a electronic version only subscription, which is typically less expensive.


Yeah, but one of the reasons they’ve gotten much more expensive is that the big serials companies like Elsevier have bought the journals up, jacked up the prices, and left you with nothing to do but buy them. Also, the deal you cut with Elsevier is a Secret. So you don’t even know what anybody else is paying for their paper journals or their electronic Big Deal, and when you get your big package Big Deal you can’t even tell what you’re paying for what - they give you a crazy assortment of stuff and it comes and goes and… the whole thing is a major problem, extraordinarily expensive, and unlikely to fix itself soon. Journal pricing has beat inflation by orders of magnitude and less wealthy institutions cannot keep up.

I get offers in the mail for some of the communications-oriented journals. I can’t imagine what an academic library would pay, but if I were to subscribe for myself, it’s still around $500 or so a year per subscription.

I do subscribe to one academic journal, but that’s a benefit to joining that association.


The high cost of these journals is often paid for by a large institution. This subscription will allow members of that institution free access to the online journal and archives and the price then becomes more reasonable.

One curious and little known fact is that one must often pay to publish in said journals.

I think the Internet’s also putting strain on the publishers of the journals, to be fair. It’s now simple to type in the name of the article you are looking for, and either obtain it from the author’s website or from a preprint server like arXiv.

Which is why I wonder how these academic journals continue to survive. The whole point of the academic journal thing, as I understand it anyway, is that it (a) provides a first-level peer review, as articles submitted must pass muster in terms of accuracy, readability and relevance (the more prestigious the journal, the more likely they are to reject a publication as “insignificant”), to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will; and (b) provides a standardized distribution channel.

Well with the Internet point (b) is somewhat moot, a server like arXiv is practically ideal as a distribution channel. And couldn’t a fair amount of point (a) be substituted with a blog-like structure online?

There are purely online journals appearing, now, with rapidly improving reputations. There’s also all sorts of campaigns amongst academics to boycott the likes of Springer and Elsevier, due to their pricing and other restrictions.

There used to be an excellent communications journal in chemistry published by Elsevier. A group of US Academics got so pissed off with the pricing and lack of author-friendly features that they formed their own equivalent journal, which has now decimated the Elsevier competition. So these author-lead initiatives can be effective - there is a lot of long term bad feeling to publishers such as Elsevier.

Online only journals barely register in my field. They’ve improved to the point where if I read a paper I’d probably take it seriously, it would probably describe a reproducible set of experiments, but it would describe a non-important piece of science. I guess this is certain to change in the future, and at least one competitive online journal will emerge.

CRSP - emailing an author for a reprint is standard behaviour, but do guys really stick a pdf of a paper on their website in your area? (ie not a link to the publisher’s website) Sounds like clear breach of copyright and not something I’ve seen in my field.

500 USD per year doesn’t sound like all that much. In the business world, I’m pretty sure some of the higher-end investment newsletters and trade journals run at least that much.

Yes. It’s incredibly irritating when they don’t, too.

I suspect that the back of Elsevier and other large academic publishing firms is immintently going to be broken.

To begin with, the NIH and other federal research funding sources have recently begun to enforce rules that research funded by them must be published in publicly available journals.

The PLoS journals have started to publish some very high-quality stuff and my understanding the economics of the academic publishing game make “open source” journals a very viable option. With a lot of the high-quality federally financed research going to such journals, I really question Elsevier’s ability to continue to demand millions of dollars a year from universities for access to the work-product of other academics.

I don’t know of any organized boycott, but I know that I and many other physicists tend to steer away from Elsevier journals just because they’re such a hassle to use. At least part of the hassle is due to their (in my opinion) overzealous efforts to make sure that only authorized subscribers can read the journal, which ties into their for-profit business model. If I can get the same information as in an Elsevier article from some other source, I will, just because it’s easier for me.

Everything is the same, except we writers have to do all the typesetting ourselves, and circulation is nearly universal among academic libraries.

Oh, and we do all the editing and refereeing of articles for free.

And we writers have to pay a per-page publication fee for some of the bigger journals.

And really the journals don’t do much of anything but charge an arm and a leg.

In fact, it got bad enough that the entire editorial board of Topology resigned in protest a little over a year ago, and a couple other journals followed suit.

Not only expensive for subscribers, but for the authors publishing in the journal. I recently had to fork out 2 grand to get my images published in color. Its a scam.

I have to be honest I’m shaking my head in disbelief at these stories. I expected to be told that all publishing was moving to the web and the print journals were dying. But they’re not, they’re still banking it!

Here we have some of the most intelligent, tech savvy members of the population in an age where costs of world wide distribution via the web has become almost incidental being (it sounds) held captive by publishing houses charging rates that border on insane.

If you guys are doing the peer review, and the typesetting, and setup more or less for free what exactly are these companies bringing to the table other than a printing press? In business high cost providers would be dropped like a hot potato unless they were delivering something absolutely extraordinary. What’s really going on here, why do they have you so firmly in their greedy clutches?

An audience, I’d imagine