The Journal Deadpool: Failing Business Models and Sick Markets in Scientific Publishing?

July 27, 2007

Several articles in the past few years have alluded to the ongoing cost squeeze faced by librarians maintaining scientific journal collections. Consistently we're told by those doing the buying that subscription costs have gotten way out of control. Sadly, there's only one correct response: kill subscriptions to those journals that price themselves out of the marketplace.

For the most part, canceling journal subscriptions has been a private activity - news doesn't consistently travel beyond the confines of the institution doing it. But what if it did?

Try this thought experiment: you're a journal publisher who has had a number of canceled subscriptions in the last two years. You continue to receive a healthy number of manuscript submissions, yet your revenues have been falling to the point that you may not be able to cover your costs. Do you (a) lower subscription rates to more competitively price your product; (b) keep rates the same, hoping things will turn around; or (c) raise rates to maintain profitability?

There's an interesting hypothesis, variously alluded to, that says that journals increase their subscription rates to remain profitable in the face of declining demand. Classical economics says that declining demand should result in declining prices, but that assumes a healthy, efficiently-functioning marketplace. Scientific publishing today may not be among them.

Could declining subscription rates actually be a major cause of the "increasing costs" faced by scientific publishers and passed on to subscribers? It's a testable hypothesis if the right data have been collected.

To conduct such a study, one piece of information that may be helpful is a market-wide summary of journal subscription cancellations. Let's call it the "Journal Deadpool." Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no such data exist.

By way of the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List, Thurston Donart Miller pointed out that the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics (PAM) Division of the Special Libraries Association has maintained a list of canceled subscriptions for the last ten years.

The PAM effort is a step in the right direction, but what if they took it further? By including data such as the date of cancellation, the last annual subscription fee, and whether an online subscription to the journal is available at the institution, a much clearer picture of the state of the scientific publishing market would emerge.

A highly-publicized, multi-institution "Journal Deadpool" would certainly give food for thought to scientists considering where to send their next manuscript. And it would strengthen the case of librarians who are caught in the middle.

One of the prerequisites for a healthy marketplace is free flow of information among both buyers and sellers. A Journal Deadpool may be just what the doctor ordered.

Image Credit: geographie