The Hidden Costs of Pricey Journals: How Academic Paywalls Hinder Scientific Progress

Academic journals can be expensive, with article processing fees, submission fees, and open access fees costing thousands of dollars, hindering scientific progress and collaboration.

It’s no secret that academic journals can be expensive.

For example, many top journals charge hefty article processing fees (APCs), often in the range of $2,000 to $5,000 per article.

For instance, PNAS charges $2,700 for most research articles, while Cell charges $5,000.

On top of APCs, there can be submission fees ($50-$200), page charges ($100-$250 per page), color charges ($200-$1000 per figure), and open access fees ($1000-$5000).

All in, publishing a single paper in a prestigious journal can easily cost $3,000 to $10,000 or more.

Most of this is typically paid for by research grants or institutional funds.

And universities also pay a lot so that their students and researchers can access those journals.

Annual institutional subscription prices for top journals are commonly over $1,000, and sometimes much higher.

For example, as of 2023, a yearly online subscription to The Lancet costs $2,074 while the Journal of Comparative Neurology is a whopping $35,489.

Prices vary widely between disciplines.

One study found the average 2023 subscription price was $1,305 for economics, $5,304 for physics, and $11,644 for chemistry journals.

For comprehensive journal access, many university libraries pay millions per year in bundled subscriptions to major publishers.

Top-tier research universities like Harvard or MIT can spend over $10 million annually on journal subscriptions.

A Hidden Cost: Fewer Citations

But a new study reveals the hidden costs of these pricey subscriptions: by limiting access to cutting-edge research, steep paywalls are actually slowing scientific progress and collaboration.

A pre-print of the study, conducted by researchers at Texas A&M University, Berkeley Research Group, and the University of Arizona, was published on Elsevier’s SSRN on February 5, 2024.

It analyzed data on journal pricing, publishing, and citations in economics, physics, and engineering from 2009-2018.

What they found is troubling for anyone who cares about the open exchange of knowledge.

A 1% Price Hike, an 0.83% Drop in Citations

The core finding is striking: for every 1% increase in journal prices, the number of citations an article receives within 5 years drops by 0.83%.

The effect is even greater (1.07%) for the number of authors citing the work.

As the study’s authors put it, “Elevated prices and substantial publisher power significantly diminish the volume of article citations and collaborative research.”

“A 1% increase in journal prices leads to a 0.83% decrease in an article’s citation count and a 1.07% decrease in its citing author count.”

The impact is most severe for researchers at lower-ranked institutions and in developing countries.

A 1% price jump causes citations from those groups to plummet by 1.24% and 1.83% respectively.

In other words, the high cost of journal access is exacerbating inequality in the research world.

Publishers’ Market Power Makes It Worse

But prices are only part of the story.

The study also examined the effect of publishers’ market power – i.e. the concentration of journals in the hands of a few big players.

In economics, for instance, publishing giants Elsevier and Wiley dominate the market.

This lack of competition also takes a toll.

The researchers found that a 1% increase in a publisher’s market share leads to a 0.31% decrease in citations and a 0.35% decrease in citing authors.

Again, the impact is worse for lower-ranked schools.

Open Access Provides a Lift

There is one bright spot in the findings: open access.

When journals allow free, unrestricted access to articles, it gives citations a boost – 28.9% on average.

The effect is even more pronounced (36.5%) for researchers in developed countries.

“An article with open access would increase citation by 28.9% and citing authors by 24.9%.”

Non-Profit Publishers Aren’t a Panacea

So what’s the solution? One might think non-profit publishers are the answer.

But the study found that while non-profits do tend to charge lower prices, the negative impact of price hikes was similar regardless of a publisher’s profit status.

Nor did having a non-profit “market leader”, as in electronic engineering with the IEEE, alleviate ill effects from lack of competition.

Looking Ahead

This research makes a compelling case that the academic publishing model is broken.

Sky-high subscription costs and outsized market power are stifling the spread of knowledge.

While open access policies, like those recently announced by the White House, provide some hope, the study’s authors say more drastic steps are needed.

One proposal: across-the-board price reductions.

In economics, they calculate that a 30-35% cut would achieve an effect similar to full open access.

Of course, publishers are unlikely to slash prices voluntarily.

Which is why the researchers suggest an even bolder approach may be necessary – blocking publisher mergers to curb market concentration.

Only then can knowledge flow freely.

Study information

Title:The Cost of Knowledge: Academic Journal Pricing and Research Dissemination

Authors: Yonghong An (Department of Economics, Texas A&M University), Michael Williams (Berkeley Research Group, LLC), and Mo Xiao (University of Arizona – Eller College of Management – Department of Economics)