Why do Subscriptions to Journals Cost More than to Magazines?

I have been wondering for some time why subscriptions to journals cost more than to magazines.

Examples (yearly U.S. rates):
Astronomy: $42.95
Time: $29.95
U.S. News & World Report: $20

Rates for Individuals:
JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association): $165.00
The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing: $91.95
Psychological Review: $129
The Western Historical Quarterly: $70

Many journal subscription rates are around $30-$40 a year, but the average subscription rate for journals appears to be more than that for magazines.

Any insights into why that is?

Hi there. Publishing guy here. Circulation and Marketing.

I have worked for both consumer magazines and the more scholarly stuff (as well as many other kinds of periodicals).

Journals cost more for a few reasons.

  1. There are frequently little or no ads in journals (JAMA and such). Therefore the cost of producing the magazine is only offset by the subscription base. You may not be aware that most consumer magazines run a significant loss on the subscription (or newsstand) price and make 60%+ of their revenue from advertising. The boutique pub that I current run gets $8000 per page for an ad yet the subscription price is $19.99 per year.

  2. Journals tend to have much smaller circulation bases. Whereas Newsweek or whatnot may have a print run in the millions some scholarly thing may only be in the hundreds. (The smallest I’ve worked for was Demokratizatsita: The Journal of Russian Democratization and it’s subscription base was about 60)(No fooling). What this means is that on a unit basis printing a journal is MUCH more expensive. Each copy coming off the press costs MUCH more and therefore needs more to offset it. Journals also tend to have higher overhead in relation to overall sales.

  3. Sadly, it’s the custom. Journals tend to get placed in university libraries and subscribed to by university professors and similar. In general…these subs are not paid for by the person making use of them. They are spending other people’s money. For a consumer title it tends to be the reader who shells out for it therefore there is a great deal more price sensitivity in those markets.

  4. Lack of competition. If you think Newsweek costs too much you buy Time instead. If you think The Journal of Genetic Psychology costs too much you’d be hard pressed to find a replacement.

  5. Lastly, the information (and therefore purchase of) contained in journals is expected to be put to greater use and therefore is emparted by the reader with greater value. If you read People you know you’ll never use it except maybe around the water cooler. If you read The Journal of Economic Education you should expect that there will be solid information there that you can put to work generated dollars or influence or insight for yourself or your employer.

And now you should be able to put together where my first job in publishing was…all those moons ago.

Anyway, I hope that was helpful. I’ll be glad to clarify if needed. I think about this stuff way too much.

  1. No advertising. Most consumer magazines use ads to cover their costs. Subscriptions pretty much just pay for the cost of printing the individual copy; the profit is made on advertising.

  2. High overhead. Top journals require peer review and other overhead that general purpose magazines don’t need to pay.

  3. Price gouging. This has been a quiet scandal among university libraries. There’s one particular publisher of important scientific journals that charges in the thousands of dollars for subscriptions. Since the journals are needed by university libraries for research purposes, they’re forced to pay it. Further, most journals don’t pay their contributors, and even require their contributors to pay them to publish. Since it’s often “publish or perish,” they have contributors over a barrel. (To be fair, sometimes the publishers are using the money for other educational enterprises, but not always.)

True story: a scientific journal wanted to publish one of my web pages in one of their issues (it’s a series of anecdotes about my grandfather’s friendship with Albert Einstein). They absolutely required that I transfer copyright to them, and when I asked about payment, they whined about how they were a nonprofit organization and couldn’t pay their contributors. That held little water for me, since I ran, at various times, two different magazines for nonprofit organizations (Star*Line and the SFWA Bulletin) and we managed to pay our contributors. I told them to buzz off.

Yes, I figured the smaller subscription base & no advertising revenue would factor in, but I was surprised to see some medical journals do have medication & medical equipment advertisements.

I don’t know about the prevalence of advertising in refereed publications, but ads are definitely accepted by some.

And since researchers are not paid by journal publishers for their articles, I knew that would not factor into subscription rates.
The quality of paper couldn’t account for the entire difference in rates. :slight_smile:

Thanks for your comprehensive & thoughtful answers.

I publish a business newsletter with a circulation of about 400 that serves an industry with about 2,000 - 3,000 people in it. There are a couple of additional points that Jon and Chuck haven’t touched on directly. They may relate more to business newsletters than academic journals, but the principles are similar.

One is that the cost of such a publication is a business expense, and thus is tax deductible, which effectively reduces the cost. As JC says, the price is not (always) paid directly by the person using it, but comes from a corporate budget, so its cost is not considered in the same context as personal purchases. A $300 journal stands in about the same relation to a $1 million/year business as a $30 magazine does to someone making $100,000 a year. Petty cash.

Unlike general interest magazines, a journal may be virtually the only source for specialized information that is crucial to its readers. If you don’t want Time you can get more or less the same information from Newsweek or any number of other sources. My subscribers, however, have essentially no other source for the information I provide. Even in industries where several journals compete, there are relatively few sources, compared to mass media. This obviously tends to increase the value and price.

In the case of business newsletters, the fact that the information can save (or earn) the organization money justifies what might appear to be high costs. There are newsletters for industries like oil and telecommunications that cost thousands a year, but are considered a good value by their subscribers.

Finally, since Jonathan didn’t make it explicit, I’ll just point out that printing is generally not a small publication’s greatest expense. I charge my subscribers about $300 for a newsletter that costs me about $1.00 per book to print. So my material costs are $12 per subscriber per year. But I have to travel to industry conferences, pay long distance phone bills, send out marketing materials to get new subscribers (the largest single expense), and keep myself in beer and Big Macs. (It’s basically a one-person operation.) So although printing costs per unit go up on shorter print runs, that has little to do with the final price. The expenditures of the whole operation have to be spread out across the number of subscribers, and when they number in the hundreds or thousands, rather than millions, the subscription price has to go up.

I hope that’s helpful.

OT: that’s some nice stuff.


I appreciate getting the cost per unit for one journal title anyway.
Always wondered about how high printing costs are.

Thanks again.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is the lower price for consumer mags an attempt to entice subscribers as well as the other reasons mentioned? I had a summer job at a newspaper a couple years ago, and the circulation numbers were very important, since more readers meant more people were seeing the ads, so the paper could charge higher prices for ad space. The paper even ran a promotion that they knew would cost them money on vending sales, because the “increased” circulation would mean higher ad rates.

If the same is true for magazines, that’s probably part of the reason magazines offer discounts off the newstand price as well as other incentives to get people to sign up.

This may be just a different perspective on some comments above, but I suspect that the demand for journals is less price-sensitive. Magazines, particularly those bought for personal use, are basically a luxury. If a magazine gets too expensive, you just cancel your subscription and do something else with your time. Journals are probably bought for professional reasons, and reading them may be more or less a requirement within a particular profession.

And RealityChuck: I second bonzer; those are great stories.

Do journals really pay for peer review? When I was in research (fluid mechanics, so the journals were AIAA and JFM), my bosses regularly reviewed articles and I was usually part of the process. I don’t recall them ever getting paid, but maybe it just never came up. My wife frequently does peer review for articles in her field and has never been paid. The editors of the journals (who are usually professors or researchers themselves, not a full-time editors who actually work for the journal) get paid for their time but I’ve never seen a reviewer get paid.

Authors certainly don’t get paid and in my limited experience reviewers don’t get paid, so it would seem the overhead for a journal like this is much less than for a consumer-oriented magazine that has to pay journalists and photographers for content. However, even if that’s true, the overhead per subscriber may be much higher for academic journals with a small subscriber base, so this gets passed along as higher cost.

All these posts in and nobody’s brought up Current Issues in Modern Scholarly Literature? There’s a huge crisis now in serials pricing, partly because a few companies (Reed Elsevier, Kluwer, etc) have bought up many important titles and can charge the world for them. University libraries have had to sacrifice a lot of things just to keep the same serials, and if the price inflation continues it’s going to be too much for a lot of academic institutions. There’s been a number of movements to fight back: open access archive projects, SPARC, etc - but no one model seems to be working particularly well in a sustainable fashion currently. It’s a big issue and a serious problem, tied up to digital access issues, preservation, the scholarly publishing process, copyright, and all sorts of sticky issues. I’m at work now, but I’ll gladly provide some links once I get home on the topic.

I have never heard of a case where a reviewer got paid. I have gotten paid (not much) for doing reviews of book proposals, but that is as close as it gets.

Not only do authors not get paid, most archival journals have page charges, so authors pay to get in.

I’m on the Ed. Board of an IEEE magazine. They’re split into magazines (which take advertising, have editorial matter like columns and reviews) and archival journals. The subscriber list of journals is much smaller than for magazines. Very large magazines, like Spectrum, are not much more expensive than regular magazines. Articles in all are peer reviewed, but the writing in magazines is supposed to be easier to read for those not involved in a particular area.

I believe that journals published by commercial companies are much more expensive than those published by societies. The line editors of the societies get paid, but the editor-in-chief and the editorial board do not (except for the occasional coffee cup.)

Right. My wife has been paid to review books and to write book chapters, but never to review journal articles. But my experience is limited to just a handful of journals in a couple of technical fields, so I have no idea how others are handled. Do reviewers for medical journals like JAMA get paid?

I meant to mention this. When I used to publish in the AIAA Journal, they had an optional publication fee. Paying the fee put your article on the fast track. I guess they just tried to fill every issue with enough articles that had paid the fee and then pull from the unpaid pile as they could afford to. The more cynical among us called it a bribe.