The lawsuit against Sci-Hub begs the question: Why are academic journals so expensive, anyway?

Making Research Available Online for Free Is Illegal. But Price Gouging Is the Real Crime.

Making Research Available Online for Free Is Illegal. But Price Gouging Is the Real Crime.

The state of the universe.
April 5 2016 12:01 PM

Why Is It So Expensive to Read Academic Research?

Content piracy may be illegal, but price gouging is at least as despicable.

Widener Library, Harvard University.
Plenty of specialized journals charge $5,000 and more for subscriptions. So why are academic journals so expensive? Above, Widener Library at Harvard University.

John Phelan

The aphorism “information wants to be free,” coined by entrepreneur Stewart Brand in 1984 at the inaugural Hackers Conference, has come to serve as a shorthand justification for an ideology that would remove all unjust barriers to information access. And information has rarely been more accessible than it is on the controversial website Sci-Hub, which offers completely free access to pretty much any academic journal article ever published. The site does this through what is commonly termed “content piracy” and has been in the news lately because academic publishers are trying very hard to shut the website down.

Justin Peters Justin Peters

They aren’t having much success: It’s hosted overseas, and its proprietor, the Kazakh researcher Alexandra Elbakyan, does not seem particularly worried about the niceties of U.S. copyright law, much to her opponents’ dismay. (Academic publisher Elsevier is attempting to sue Elbakyan in federal court and won a preliminary injunction last year that temporarily shuttered Sci-Hub; the site soon returned under a different domain name.) “It’s as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it’s seen as expensive, and I find that surprising,” Alicia Wise, director of universal access at Elsevier, recently told the New York Times in an article about Elbakyan’s unrepentant redistributionism. “It’s not as if you’d walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf.”

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The chocolate bar analogy is a bad one—haute bourgeois candy bars and academic research papers have very little in common except that you will probably get sick if you eat too many of either—but let’s stick with it for a minute. Why is that organic chocolate bar so expensive in the first place? Sure, the consumer is paying a premium for the word “organic,” but organic chocolate is also more expensive to produce. The manufacturer, knowing that there is elastic demand for fancy chocolate, has presumably set the purchase price at a level where the company can cover its costs and turn a profit—all while not alienating the consumer. If a candymaker decided to charge $5,000 for an organic chocolate bar, consumers wouldn’t respond by stealing the pricey bar; they’d simply buy another brand of chocolate, and the initial company would either adjust its price or go bankrupt.

When a publisher of academic journals decides to charge $5,000 for a yearly subscription, though, subscribers might grumble about the price but they will often still pay it. This isn’t just a hypothetical situation: Plenty of specialized scientific journals charge $5,000 and more for yearly subscriptions. So why are academic journals so expensive?

The economics of academic publishing are fundamentally different from those of general book publishing, or journalism, or the chocolate industry. The latter enterprises specialize in products that members of the general public might conceivably want to purchase but don’t need. There are quite a few members of the general public, and in order to attract as many of them as possible, commercial publishers set relatively low prices for their products, hoping to realize profit through sales volume. Many online news sources, including Slate, choose to attract an audience by offering their content for free and earn money primarily from advertising rather than sales revenue.

But most academic journals don’t have wide audiences. There are hundreds and thousands of obscure journals of the “who in the world would ever want to read that” sort. That’s because after World War II, heavy government and industrial funding of university science laboratories led to unprecedented specialization of the sciences. This outcome in turn led to a new crop of specialized scientific journals with similarly narrow foci so that these specialist scientists could have outlets in which to publish their research results. As the number of publications increased, academic libraries felt obliged to subscribe to them all or to as many as possible.

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Many of these new, small journals became affiliated with existing publishing groups like Elsevier. In exchange for ownership of the copyrights of the articles they print, these publishers agree to coordinate the peer-review process and format, distribute, and archive these journals. These big publishers could scale the same template they used for the publication of one journal to many journals. Reasoning that the research results contained in these small, esoteric journals would be very valuable to certain people—even if there are only 100 professors in the world who actually need to read Fluid Dynamics Geometric Titration Quarterly (note: not a real journal), those 100 professors will be upset if their libraries don’t have it—and observing that academic libraries seemed committed to buying every new journal that came out, the publishers started exploiting this inelastic demand and raising subscription prices, regularly and predictably. This situation became known as the “serials pricing crisis.”

The serials pricing crisis has been busting academic libraries’ budgets—and creating ever-widening information gaps between rich and poor countries—since the 1970s, when subscription prices to academic journals first started rising faster than the rate of inflation. In his book Open Access, Peter Suber observed that “In 2008, Harvard subscribed to 98,900 serials and Yale to 73,900. The best-funded research library in India, at the Indian Institute of Science, subscribed to 10,600. Several sub-Saharan African university libraries subscribed to zero, offering their patrons access to no conventional journals except those donated by publishers.” The rich get richer, the poor make do with dusty old copies of National Geographic.

It’s unfortunate, but not particularly surprising, that some sub-Saharan universities cannot afford to keep up with the latest in academic research. But it turns out that even Harvard is struggling to afford all of its journal subscriptions; in 2008, Suber noted in Open Access, “cumulative price increases had forced the Harvard library to undertake ‘serious cancellation efforts’ for budgetary reasons.” Harvard’s dilemma has not improved much since then: Suber recently told the New York Times that the university continues to struggle to afford its journal subscriptions even though “it has the largest budget of any academic library in the world.”

The open access movement—Sci-Hub belongs to its most radical wing—began in the 1990s in direct response to the serials pricing crisis. Its founders realized that the Internet could minimize production and distribution costs, and offer a potential solution to academic stratification and the serials pricing crisis. Today, open-access advocates argue in favor of making academic research papers freely accessible to other researchers and scholars, and emphasize the immense public benefit of making scholarly research accessible to the world at large. With Sci-Hub, Elbakyan is trying to speed this outcome. “Before Sci-Hub, all research on a massive scale was closed behind paywalls, and now anyone can access it! It will be impossible to shut down the website completely, so that change is forever,” she wrote earlier this year. “[T]he effect of long-term operation of Sci-Hub will be that publishers change their publishing models to support Open Access, because closed access will make no sense anymore.”

In fact, some academic publishers do provide their peer-reviewed articles for free—the Directory of Open Access Journals maintains a searchable directory of more than 11,000 “quality, peer reviewed open access” publications. But up to now, the largest academic publishers have had very little incentive to wholeheartedly embrace open access. By doing so, they would diminish the value of their copyrights and reduce their profit margins, which can be substantial. Elsevier, for its part, earned approximately $1.58 billion in profit on $9.36 billion in revenue in 2015— which brings us back to its problem with Elbakyan. Elsevier sued her in 2015, seeking financial damages—in a June 2015 federal court filing, Elsevier’s attorneys claimed that “Plaintiffs will almost certainly be entitled to statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringed work”—and that Sci-Hub and Elbakyan “have caused and continue to cause irreparable injury to Elsevier and its publishing partners.”

This claim is a bit rich, much like the claimant.