But a new analysis indicates the academic community might actually suffer in the arrangement, as commercial for-profit publishers have a more effective means of price discrimination. That is particularly true of journals spawned by fields such as neurobiology and molecular biology, which emerged in recent years and didn't have long-standing and well-respected non-profit journals of the kind that exist in fields such as physics and meteorology.
The study is detailed in a report by Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington assistant biology professor, and his father, Theodore Bergstrom, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Jan. 20 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.
Their analysis shows libraries must pay sharply higher prices for print subscriptions to commercially owned academic journals than for those published by professional societies or universities. They cite the field of ecology, in which commercial publishers' prices, on average, are about five times higher per page than non-profit journals. The price discrepancy is 15 times greater when figured according to how often an article in the publication is cited in other scientific articles.
The situation is being driven at least in part by the time-honored bromide that, to survive and flourish, an academic must "publish or perish," said Carl Bergstrom, who is lead author of the study. Academic societies and universities haven't kept pace with the publishing demand, in part because there is an ever-higher number of people in academic fields and a number of recently emerging fields, he said. So commercial journals have stepped in to fill the void.
However, when setting priorities for limited subscription budgets, university libraries often are in a quandary when trying to supply journals used by their faculty and students, he said. Each journal is more valuable to some people than to others, and a for-profit publisher could maximize revenue by taking that variation into account when setting subscription prices, Carl Bergstrom said. When selling site licenses instead of individual subscriptions, the variation is reduced and publishers can obtain higher revenues. That means site licenses could actually leave consumers of academic journals worse off than if the individuals who most wanted the journals simply bought their own subscriptions.
Though site licenses offer more efficiency to consumers, those gains will be more than offset by increased prices, if publishers set prices in a way that maximizes profits.
"However, not all site licenses are bad deals," Carl Bergstrom said. "Many non-profit and university press publishers set their prices to maximize circulation while recovering costs, rather than trying to maximize profits.
"When publishers set prices in this way, the increased efficiency of site licensing will directly benefit the academic community," he said.