A White Paper for the UNC-Chapel Hill Scholarly Communications Convocation

January, 2005



Judith M. Panitch, Research and Special Projects Librarian


Sarah Michalak, University Librarian[1]


The term “serials crisis” has become common shorthand for the runaway cost increases of many scholarly journals. The serials crisis has also come to be closely associated with the pricing practices of certain commercial publishers, particularly in the areas of science, technology, and medicine (STM). To an extent, this characterization is correct—prices for journals in certain areas from certain publishers have skyrocketed far beyond the capacity of most libraries or universities to keep up. But “serials crisis” is perhaps a bit misleading, implying that if we just got the fever to break—convinced publishers to be more reasonable—we could return to business as usual. That will not happen, and probably cannot, since the serials crisis is, more accurately, only the symptom of a larger crisis in the system of scholarly communications. It is upon this system that the proper functioning of the entire academic enterprise depends. This paper will describe the nature of the problem, examine its roots, and review some promising developments.


Serial Price Trends

Cost increases for academic journals have been well documented, thanks especially to the annual statistics compiled over many years by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Among ARL member libraries in the period 1986-2003, the price per subscription of serials rose by 215% (Table 1). Notably, the Consumer Price Index rose by only 68% during the same period. Member libraries paid 260% more for their serial subscriptions in 2003 than in 1986 despite having increased the number of subscriptions by only 14%. Table 2 documents the same trends as they have been experienced by the UNC-Chapel Hill libraries.


Cost increases have not been distributed equally across disciplines. STM journals show some of the steepest prices and price increases. In 2004, according to Library Journal (Chart 3), the average price to large university libraries for a chemistry journal was $2,695, up from $1,995 in 2000; the average price for a physics journal was $2,543, up from $1,865. Conversely, the average 2004 prices for music and art journals were $106 and $136, respectively. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the ten most expensive subscriptions for 2004 were all in scientific fields:







Brain Research  (Set of  6 titles)




Journal of Comparative Neurology  (weekly)




Journal of Applied Polymer Science




Mutation Research  (Set of 4 titles)




Journal of Polymer Science




JAMA Journal of the American Medical Assn




European Journal of Pharmacology




Thin Solid Films




American Journal of Medical Genetics







*2005 subscription price




It is worth noting from the Library Journal study—echoing our own experience—that some of the largest percentage increases in recent years have involved titles in the social sciences, although absolute prices remain lower than in the sciences. The average cost of a political science journal has increased 59% since 2000, from $226 to $360, followed by sociology (54%), business and economics (49%), and education (49%).


The Scholarly Communications System [2]

As journal prices began to climb, the “serials crisis” was viewed nearly everywhere as a library problem. How, in the face of such massive price increases, can a library stretch its limited budget? The attempted remedies have generally involved begging and scrambling for money, seeking the economies of joint purchasing with other libraries, heavier reliance on interlibrary loan, and, when all else has failed, engaging in large-scale cuts. These measures only go so far since high prices are only the final manifestation of a much larger problem.


We recognize that publication is a cornerstone function and product of academia. Publication in peer-reviewed journals serves not only as a way to certify the research at hand but, in some measure, to certify the researcher, who generally must compile a strong publication record in order to demonstrate merit for tenure and promotion. Scholarly journals also serve as an authoritative medium for information exchange and as the permanent record of research results. Faculty members depend upon the ready availability of key journals in order to support their own research. It has traditionally been the role of the university library to provide access to these journals, fulfilling the expectations of faculty, who expect equally that the library and university budget will cover the cost of subscriptions. For the year just completed, the UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries maintained 52,454 print and online serial subscriptions, of which 28,475 were paid subscriptions totaling $6.8 million.


While the publication of research results was once the purview of scholarly societies, the increased pace of research and concurrent proliferation of specializations that characterized the last thirty years invited the participation of commercial publishers in the review and dissemination of scholarly output. Yet the workings of the system have remained essentially the same: Faculty, supported by the University, produce research results which they then sign over freely to publishers in order to advance knowledge in their field and because most career paths require a distinguished publication record. Faculty members additionally volunteer their time to serve as editors and editorial board members. Commercial publishers find themselves in the enviable position of selling research which they neither produced nor paid for to a high-demand market. They maintain an additional advantage because each journal title is a unique commodity, characterized by its specific focus and also by its prestige. Competition is not a meaningful concept in this situation, as neither authors nor researchers are likely to find one title a direct substitute for another. It is hard to imagine an academic context in which research could advance or career decisions could be made without scholarly journals; they have acquired the status of a public good, a common currency of the university.


The publishers, on the other hand, are a commercial enterprise with the mandate to maximize profit. In 2003, the STM market alone topped $US 8.5 billion[3] and is recognized as extremely profitable. A  2002 British study notes that “the overall profitability of commercial STM publishing is high, not only by comparison to ‘non-profit’ journals (which is not surprising), but also by comparison to other commercial journal publishing.”[4] A 1998 study had earlier confirmed the unusually high profits and lack of competition in the industry.[5] Industry trends and practices that increase profits tend to put the squeeze on libraries. Consolidation in the industry, for example, has had a real effect on prices: As smaller publishers, including the publishing operations of many scholarly societies, are acquired by or enter into partnerships with Elsevier and the other giants, subscription prices increase. Publisher bundling of many titles together into inseparable “Big Deal” packages lock libraries into purchasing subscriptions that may be marginal or inappropriate for the collection. Large publishers have also been experimenting with new pricing practices that are hardly advantageous to libraries.[6]


Repercussions of the serials crisis cascade across the library budget. The imbalance in serials pricing by discipline means that subscriptions to less expensive journals, frequently in the humanities, may be at risk as libraries seek ways to support the costly core journals upon which scientific research depends. Disciplines dependent on monographs are also at a disadvantage. As Tables 1 and 2 indicate, monograph inflation has been much less than for serials; yet, with limited budgets going to subsidize key serial subscriptions, the number of monographs purchased by libraries has not grown. This statistic is particularly troublesome since worldwide publishing output has risen steadily, meaning that libraries are acquiring an ever smaller percentage of available titles.[7] At the same time, declining sales to academic libraries contribute to financial pressures on scholarly and university presses. In 2004, presses in Idaho, Georgia, and Iowa all faced major cuts, the Northeastern University Press eliminated all nine of its positions and joined the University Press of New England Consortium, and the Smithsonian Institute Press announced plans to seek a commercial partner. Other presses are turning from their traditional base of scholarly monographs to titles with broader popular appeal in an attempt to increase revenues. Scholars in monograph-based disciplines face not only decreased library acquisitions in their fields, but also greater difficulty in securing publishers for their own books.


Exacerbating the crisis are conditions imposed by many publishers that restrict access. Because most electronic resources are leased, rather than purchased outright, libraries experience consequences beyond rising subscription costs. License terms that limit the number of users for electronic resources, disallow off-campus use by university affiliates, or restrict the sharing of resources by interlibrary loan are common and mean that the University does not always get the full value of what it pays for. Moreover, universities find themselves in the position of paying more than once for the same scholarly output—first, as the research is underwritten in the form of salaries, labs, and the other apparatus of a research institution; and again when the research must be purchased back from the publisher for the library collection. In some cases, the content is purchased multiple times in the form of print and electronic subscriptions, electronic reserves permissions, and even course pack permissions. Nor do these expenditures always guarantee the long-term archiving and accessibility of electronic journals should a publisher choose no longer to offer some or all of its content.


Finally, of particular concern on our own campus is a growing reliance on one-time funding to maintain purchasing levels. To help overcome what would otherwise have been deficits in our budget, one-time money from several sources has been directed toward library materials. The Library has always used funds such as end-of-year lapsed salaries to purchase materials; in recent years, the Provost’s Office has also made generous allocations. Nearly all of these funds are used to pre-pay serial subscriptions for the coming year. As Chart 4 indicates, substantial sums—more than $2.5 million in the current fiscal year and nearly that amount last year—now shore up our subscription base. Instead of permitting us to grow the collection with additional monograph purchases or new databases, or to implement innovative services, these funds simply maintain the status quo. Should they ever be withdrawn, the only viable response will be massive across-the-board serials cancellations.


Some approaches

Those of us in libraries have recognized for some time that this situation is untenable, but also that there is little that we can do alone to bring about the radical systemic change that is so desperately needed. That is why this colloquium is such a welcome event, as are similar discussions that have begun taking place on other campuses and with both non-profit and some commercial publishers, who bear real risks in adopting new models.


Open Access

One of the most promising developments has been the upsurge of interest in “open access,” which seeks to make scientific and scholarly information freely available to all users via the Internet. Open access archives are repositories of information maintained by a researcher, institution, or organization. Open access journals perform the same peer review functions as traditional journals, but shift production charges away from the subscriber to other sources.[8] In practice, the most common model has been to charge publication fees, which are frequently covered by research grants, back to the author. UNC-Chapel Hill recently established a fund to support publication in open-access forums by faculty without other means to pay publication fees. Many open-access initiatives are also, for the time being, heavily subsidized.


The rapid popularity of open access is encouraging. As of January, 2005, the  Directory of Open Access Journals ( contained more than 1,400 titles. Recent studies have demonstrated the higher visibility and citation rates in a variety of disciplines for articles published in open-access forums.[9]  The Public Library of Science ( made an extremely favorable debut with its first two journals, PloS Biology, launched in October, 2003, and PLOS Medicine, which came online a year later. Open access recently gained a boost when the 2005 federal budget supported a National Institutes of Health plan to provide free access to NIH-funded research results six months after publication.[10] Serious questions have been raised about the long-term viability of open access. The business model is still relatively unproven; there are concerns that some researchers, especially those in developing countries, will not be able to afford publication fees; and the long-term effect on university budgets and scholarly societies remains to be seen.[11] Nevertheless, the movement is undeniably gaining momentum and is emerging as the most likely alternative or complement to the for-profit publishing model.


Creating alternatives

Working within the traditional framework of the subscription journal, scholars, librarians, and publishers have sought to create new dissemination models and alternative journals.


SPARC ( The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition is an alliance of universities, research libraries, and organizations working together to identify and support alternatives to the traditional pathways of scholarly communications. One of its most successful ventures has been the incubation of new journals in partnership with publishers who are committed to “fair pricing, the ethical use of scholarly resources, and intellectual property management policies that emphasize broad and easy distribution and reuse of material.” Increasingly, these journals are open access; others are supported by a purchase commitment from SPARC members, thereby ensuring a viable subscription base from the first issue. UNC-Chapel Hill is a SPARC member.


Collaborative ventures have had success in bringing together many titles and publishers to create low-cost online journals with reasonable subscription terms and, in some cases, free access to titles. The Stanford University Library’s High Wire Press ( produces the online versions of “high-impact, peer-reviewed journals and other scholarly content” in the sciences, technology, and medicine. As of December, 2004, High Wire was had nearly 800 online sites, including those for Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and JAMA. Project MUSE (, a project of the Johns Hopkins University Press and the JHU Libraries, works with not-for-profit publishers to offer nearly 250 key periodicals in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.


Saying no

Saying no to the large commercial publishers can take many forms. Libraries say no every time we cancel a journal title that is not heavily consulted or that has been eclipsed by other titles in the field. UNC-Chapel Hill librarians, in consultation with faculty, constantly monitor subscription lists; the savings from cancelled journals are applied to new subscriptions in the same field. Libraries are also saying no to the restrictive “Big Deal” licenses promoted by publishers. In January, 2004, the Provosts of UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University elected to terminate the Triangle Research Libraries Network joint license to Elsevier Science[12] at about the same time that other major universities, including Cornell, Harvard, and MIT also rejected renewal terms from Reed-Elsevier. Reed-Elsevier has since reached agreements with the University of California system and other institutions that had threatened cancellation, suggesting that the publisher may be reconsidering its pricing system in certain cases.[13]


Faculty members, especially those who have already attained tenure, can also exercise the opportunity to say no by refusing to publish in, edit, or serve on the editorial boards of journals with predatory pricing practices, and by exerting influence with their scholarly societies. Publishing in open access forums is another powerful statement. And some authors working with commercial publishers have had success modifying standard publication agreements in order to retain more rights in their own works.[14]



This paper has discussed the journal and scholarly communications crisis primarily as an issue of pragmatism: The system as we know it is broken to the point that we can no longer carry out the daily business of the university. But there is also an ethical dimension to the discussion, for what we are talking about most fundamentally is access to information. This information, more often than not, is created through use of public funds—the taxes that, in part, pay our salaries, build our labs, fund our grants, or funded the previous grants upon which today’s research is based, and build our library collections. It is true that commercial publishers do add value to that information, and most of us do not begrudge them a reasonable profit for doing so. But when the conditions they impose become as burdensome as they are now, when prices are breaking university budgets and license restrictions add additional obstacles to access, then the knowledge created as a public good and at public expense is essentially being held hostage to interests that our not our own. By continuing to do business as usual, we are participating in a system that works against our own interests, and we are failing to engage in responsible stewardship of the financial and intellectual resources at our disposal.









[1] With thanks to Selden Durgom Lamoureux, Catherine Gerdes, Rita Moss, and Teresa West.

[2] For an early but still excellent summary, see: “To Publish and Perish,” Policy Perspectives (v. 7, no. 4, March 1998). and

[3] Electronic Publishing Services, Ltd. “Latest EPS Research Suggests Continued Growth in the STM Market through 2007” (Oct. 28, 2004). .

[4] Office of Fair Trading, “The Market for Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journals: A Statement by the OFT,” Sept. 2002. (

[5] Brendan J. Wyly. “Competition in Scholarly Publishing? What Publisher Profits Reveal.” ARL Bimonthly Newsletter, Oct. 1998. (

[6] Among these are so-called “flip pricing” where, instead of adding electronic access as a small surcharge (usually 10%) to a print subscription, the base price is instead applied to the electronic edition, with print added for a larger surcharge (usually 25%). Some publishers are considering a pricing model for electronic publications based upon use, which could have a disastrous effect for libraries in terms of the most heavily-used online resources.

[7] The number of books offered in one major library approval plan has increased 27% over the last decade, from 43,061 in 1994/95 to 54,835 in 2003/04. These are books published or distributed in the United States that are appropriate for an academic library collection. (Yankee Book Peddler, “Annual Book Price Update” . Statistics maintained by the International Publishers Association also document a worldwide trend toward increased book production ( ).

[8] See the Budapest Open Access Initiative which in 2001 helped to articulate the principles of open access  ( ).

[9] . Also: Kristin Antelman. “Do Open Access Articles Have a Greater Research Impact?” College & Research Libraries (Sept. 204): pp. 372-382.

[10] Peter Suber, “NIH Public-Access Policy: Frequently Asked Questions” .

[11] See: “The Promise and Peril of ‘Open Access.” Chronicle of Higher Education. January, 30, 2004, p. 10. A just-released task force report from Cornell University suggests that a full and immediate conversion to open-access might result in increased serials expenditures if current subscription funds are instead directed toward author’s fees. The report acknowledges, however, a need for additional analysis and recognizes the potential of open access in certain cases. (Report of the CUL Task Force on Open Access Publishing Presented to the Cornell University Library Management Team August 9, 2004. )

[13] Perhaps more persuasive have been public perceptions and market repercussions generated by Reed-Elsevier’s pricing. See, for example: Charles Goldsmith. “Reed Elsevier Feels Resistance to Web Pricing.” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 2004, p. B1. At about the same time, Reed Elsevier stock was downgraded by at least two major financial analysts, BNP Paribas and Citigroup Smith Barney (SPARC Open Access Newsletter, #67, In October 2004, Citigroup Smith Barney again downgraded their rating of Reed Elsevier based on trends in the STM market (Smith Barney Citigroup, Reed Elsevier PLC, Oct. 8, 2004).

[14] The Create Change Web site ( contains more information, examples, and model language for faculty seeking to take individual action, as well as more background about the scholarly communications crisis.