The Serials Crisis and the OA Movement it Spawned

The Consumer Price Index has pegged the 2009 annual rate of inflation at 2.7%.1 The journals and monographs that libraries bought in 2009 went up by 9% (on average)–three times as much as the rate of inflation.2 For over a quarter century, the prices of serials have outstripped the rate of inflation. This phenomenon has come to be called the Serials Crisis.

From a peculiar academic publishing model, to for-profit avarice, the causes of the serials crisis are manifold. The business model of academic publishing has three participants: 1) The faculty member who does the research, writes the article, and peer reviews/edits for the journal; 2) The publisher which, acting as a jobber, vets, publishes, and distributes the journal; 3.) The academic library that buys the journal.

Here is an example of how it typically works. A scholar writes a journal article. The salary and research costs of that scholar are paid for by his sponsoring institution. The article the scholar wrote, which was underwritten by his employer, is given to a for-profit journal publisher free of charge.  The for-profit publisher, has other scholars edited and peer review the article pro bono. The for-profit publisher, acting as the middle man, collects, produces, and distributes the journal that is comprised of articles it paid nothing for. The university library then buys the journal that its university partially subsidized.3

This lopsided system of dependency had worked fine for hundreds of years. Then something changed. For-profit publishers started purchasing or partnering with non-profit scholarly societies. By turning over their journals to for-profit publishers, non-profit scholarly publishers are relieving themselves of the financial and administrative risks that come with publishing. This has led to a consolidation of the market and lack of competition, which has allowed for-profit publishers to relentlessly increase journal prices.

Academic norms tie tenure and promotion to faculty discovering and disseminating new knowledge through scholarly articles. This in turn, supplies for-profit publishers with manuscripts. Scholars must either publish or perish, and without the journals they cannot publish. Libraries must purchase journals to build a strong collection that meets the needs of their researches. All of this has left academia with no choice but to pay the exorbitant and relentlessly rising cost of journal subscriptions, or at least that was the case until very recently. Libraries, universities, and scholarly institutions are taking advantage of the pricing power of technology to push back against for-profit journal publishers, to retain the rights to their research, and to make information more accessible.

Through technology, the price barrier to entering publishing has been dramatically reduced. As the phenomenon of Moore’s Law has allowed the number of transistors on a processor to double every twenty-four months, while being accompanied by a dramatic reduction in cost, this same gain in efficiency has been achieved in hard drive storage and fiber optic capacity. This has resulted in the cost of doing business online plummeting toward zero.

These efficiencies have allowed for the creation of freeconomics and the freemium business model. This is a model in which it is so cheap to produce and deliver an electronic product, that the vast majority of users can access it for free, while a small percentage pay for those gratis services through a premium subscription.  As little as three to five percent of freemium service users are paying users, and yet the business can still make a profit.4

The same computer advances that have allowed for a for-profit business model that can give over ninety percent of its services away for free, has allowed non-profit academia to spawn the Open Access movement. Open Access is a publishing model that is digital in form and allows for the removal of price, access, and permission barriers.

Open Access equals free and open content.  This means that the journal costs are not paid for the by reader. The finances are taken care of on the back-end, and they are paid by any number of means: The author, or his sponsoring institution, paying a submission fee, institutional support, grants, tax money, or advertising.

Authors consent to putting their work in the public domain through the use of an open content license. The most well known of which are the Creative Commons and GNU General Public License. With an open content license, the author decides which rights he wants to release into the public domain. Through the use of such a license, Open Access journals allow for unrestricted access, downloading, printing, sharing, crawling and searching, while at the same time allowing the author to retain copyright.5

Open Access is achieved through two means.  Open Access journals, and Open Access Repositories. Open Access journals are peer reviewed and follow the same stringent standards as for-profit journals.  Open Access Repositories are discipline or institution specific and may contain preprints, postprints, or class material, not all of which has been peer reviewed.

Stewart Brand said, “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.”6 Open Access is free information, and it is an information model that is creating tension for traditional for-profit publishers. Open Access gives academia pricing and negotiation power that might some day bring an end to the serials crisis.

  1. Consumer Price Index Summary. (2010, January 15). Bureau of labor Statistics. Retrieved January 28, 2010, from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm
  2. Lee C. Van Orsdel, & Kathleen Born. (2008, April 15). Periodicals Price Survey 2008: Embracing Openness. Library Journal. Retrieved December 20, 2009, from http://www.libraryjournal.com/index.asp?layout=articlePrint&articleID=CA6547086
  3. Peter Suber. (2007, June 19). Open Access Overview. Earlham College. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm
  4. Anderson, C. (2009). Free: The Future of a Radical Price. New York: Hyperion.
  5. A Guide to Open Content Licenses. (2004). Piet Zwart Institute. Retrieved December 22, 2009, from http://pzwart.wdka.hro.nl/mdr/research/lliang/open_content_guide/03-chapter_2/#gpl
  6. Roger Clarke. (2001, August 28). Information Wants to be Free … Roger Clark. Retrieved January 28, 2010, from http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/IWtbF.html