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At What Cost?

As the price of scholarly journals skyrockets, Stanford fights back.

Linda Cicero

PRICEY PILE: Keller examines recent issues of about one-fourth of Stanford’s Reed Elsevier subscriptions. The University pays about $1.2 million annually for 400 titles from the publishing giant.

Biochemistry professor Doug Brutlag carries his file cabinets with him wherever he goes, easily storing 15 years’ worth of scientific papers on his Apple PowerBook. “I’ve downloaded PDF versions of papers from online journals, and I can read them anytime, and cut and paste them—things I could never do with a hard copy.”

Stanley Falkow, a professor of microbiology and immunology and of medicine, says his graduate students and postdocs take the same approach. This new generation of researchers is “attuned to electronic access to journals, and they want it immediately,” Falkow says. “And that’s where a lot of pressure comes from at the institution.”

Falkow and Brutlag, PhD ’72, are keen observers of what has come to be known on campuses nationwide as the “serials crisis.” These ultraspecialized publications, which go by such titles as the Journal of Applied Polymer Science and the Journal of Comparative Neurology, are the lifeblood of the academy. Having a paper published in one counts heavily in promotion and tenure decisions. “Our survival, our progress—everything on which we’re evaluated—comes from our publications,” says biological sciences professor Robert Simoni.

As students and faculty have traded library forays for digitized articles in recent years, for-profit publishers have raised the prices they charge universities for online subscriptions. The publishers “bundle” print and electronic subscriptions together and require institutions to pay what Simoni calls a “very substantial surcharge” for the online versions. Some publishers also bundle lesser-known journals with their most prestigious title, forcing libraries to buy a passel of periodicals they don’t necessarily want.

“The thing that pains me most is that when we first started talking about electronic publishing, the notion was to save money,” Simoni adds. “But it ended up being an opportunity for many publishers—maybe most—to enhance their revenues.”

The leading biomedical journal, Cell, for example, costs an individual $159 annually. But in December 2002, the University was quoted a price of $47,000 for a Cell “package” that would have included both print and online subscriptions to the biweekly Cell and to eight other journals published by Reed Elsevier, which dominates the “STM”—science, technical and medical—journal market. Stanford Libraries turned down the offer. Lane Medical Library does subscribe to a group of five journals that includes Cell, but cannot disclose the cost.

By contrast, professional nonprofit societies of, say, chemists and computer scientists, publish scholarly journals at significantly lower, break-even costs. An annual subscription to print and electronic versions of the American Journal of Botany, one of the most highly cited journals in its field, costs $395—with no bundles attached.

A spokesperson for Elsevier says the company “wants our customers to be happy” and has asked for a meeting with officials at Stanford. Eric Merkel-Sobotta, director of corporate relations, says Elsevier “loathes” the claim that the company bundles journals, “because we don’t do it.” Like many scientific journals, he adds, “Cell started off as one physical magazine, and over the years split into several, all of which are related.” Merkel-Sobotta compares subscriptions to multiple, related publications to a popular Sunday supplement. “No matter how much you like the New York Times Magazine, you cannot subscribe to it separately [from the newspaper].”

At a time when their budget is being reduced by two or three percent each year, and the cost of many journals is rising by 10 percent annually, University librarians are trying to weed out titles that get little use. Last year, the science and technology libraries cancelled 489 titles for a savings of $504,000; cancellations over the previous three years netted $854,000 in savings. “Stanford has a very lean list of serial subscriptions, and every cancellation now is painful,” says University librarian Michael Keller.

Given Elsevier’s prominence in the sciences, Stanford continues to subscribe to 400 of the 1,700 journals the company publishes, at a cost of about $1.2 million per year. The periodicals account for less than 2 percent of the libraries’ 28,000 subscriptions, but represent roughly 20 percent of the annual journal budget of about $6 million. A handful of universities—the University of California system, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, MIT and North Carolina State—have begun to resist the company’s pricing strategies by canceling subscriptions and renegotiating contracts with Elsevier. In February, Stanford took the fight in a new direction.

The Faculty Senate approved a resolution that encourages faculty and University libraries to support “affordable” scholarly journals. It calls on the libraries to refuse bundled subscription plans and to scrutinize the pricing of for-profit journals in general, and “those published by Elsevier in particular.” Finally, the four-part resolution encourages senior faculty to stop writing for or reviewing articles in journals that “engage in exploitive or exorbitant pricing.”

Some senior faculty have already taken action on their own. Falkow, a former president of the 40,000-member American Society for Microbiology, stopped reviewing articles for a journal that was acquired by Elsevier four years ago. “Their response [was] to imply that I am senile!” he told the Faculty Senate. Donald Knuth, a professor emeritus of computer science, says he and the entire editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms voted to resign from that Elsevier publication because “we came to the unanimous conclusion that it was wrong to continue the way we were going.” He will help launch a new scholarly journal, ACM Transactions on Algorithms, within the next few months.

Elsevier’s Merkel-Sobotta says there are still “quite a number of editorial board members at Stanford.” He adds, “I understand that a lot of people who, for political reasons, were not very active in the Faculty Senate meeting [when the resolution was approved] are quite horrified.” Stanford e-mailed the 32 senate members in science, technology and medicine. Of the 27 who replied, only two reported any qualms with the resolution. Professor of medicine Andrew Hoffman, who serves on the editorial board of Elsevier’s American Journal of Medicine, says he has reservations about the portion that calls on senior faculty not to work on high-priced journals, but did not attend the senate meeting when the resolution was approved. Statistics professor David Siegmund says he “would have preferred a resolution that did not single out Elsevier, since they are only the largest and most visible, but by no means the only, culprit.”

Resistance is being waged on another front by proponents of “open access” publishing, which eschews subscription fees and instead charges authors for the cost of producing their articles—typically around $1,500. Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown and fellow scientists Harold Varmus and Mike Eisen believe that published work should be freely available online (Farm Report, January/February 2003). Last October, their nonprofit Public Library of Science launched the first issue of PLoS Biology. On the day it debuted, the website had 500,000 hits.

Although Keller argues that traditional publishing may be threatened by the open-access movement, he agrees that the marketplace is “now tingling with challenges and possibilities.” As he reads the typographical tea leaves, he’s got his hands full. “Stanford’s research interests are constantly changing,” he says. “And we have to provide information before the scientists and other scholars here know they need it. We’re trying to work in anticipation, but it gets harder and harder.”

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