How many professors in chemistry can give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a year’s subscription to Tetrahedron (currently $39,082)? Who in medical schools has the foggiest notion of the price of The Journal of Comparative Neurology ($27,465)? What physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3,368), and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)?
Librarians who buy these subscriptions for the use of faculty and students can shower you with statistics. In 2009, Elsevier, the giant publisher of scholarly journals based in the Netherlands, made a $1.1 billion profit in its publishing division, yet 2009 was a disastrous year for library budgets. Harvard’s seventy-three libraries cut their expenditures by more than 10 percent, and other libraries suffered even greater reductions, but the journal publishers were not impressed. Many of them raised their prices by 5 percent and sometimes more. This year, the publishers of the several Nature journals announced that they were increasing the cost of subscriptions for libraries in the University of California by 400 percent. Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science, technology, and medicine recently ran to 30–40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.
While prices continued to spiral upward, professors became entrapped in another kind of vicious circle, unaware of the unintended consequences. Reduced to essentials, it goes like this: we academics devote ourselves to research; we write up the results as articles for journals; we referee the articles in the process of peer reviewing; we serve on the editorial boards of the journals; we also serve as editors (all of this unpaid, of course); and then we buy back our own work at ruinous prices in the form of journal subscriptions—not that we pay for it ourselves, of course; we expect our library to pay for it, and therefore we have no knowledge of our complicity in a disastrous system.
extracted from "Three Jeremiads" by Robert Darnton. New York Review of Books, Dec. 23, 2010.