In an earlier post I talked about how firms with a large set of distinct items to sell – a cable television provider with many channels; a museum with many rooms – would find it most efficient to offer only a package deal to customers, with no a la carte offerings, even when customers complain that they really only want a very small sample of what is on offer.
An example I did not give at the time was academic publishing. But publisher’s strategies follow this same model. As an example, I will use Taylor & Francis, although I will note right away that their pricing model does not seem notably different from other academic publishers. I choose T&F because it publishes the main journals in arts policy: Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society; International Journal of Cultural Policy (disclosure: I am on its editorial board); Cultural Trends. Each of these journals does in fact offer individual articles a la carte, but priced to the non-subscriber at $37 per article. There seems to be no differentiation in price across the three journals, across time (old articles priced the same as recent ones), or by length – the one-page editorial by Sara Selwood in the most recent issue of Cultural Trends, which (because it is only one page) one can read in its entirety in the preview window, costs the same $37 as any substantive research article. I have no data, but let me speculate: sales of individual articles at this price are very few, and not really expected by the publisher. The goal is to sell bundles of subscriptions to institutional libraries. Libraries will take the bundle because it is too hard to know in advance which specific journals will happen to be useful to scholars.
But collections of journals are expensive, a high price to colleges already facing cost pressures on a number of fronts. What to do? Harvard now advises faculty to publish in open access journals, which is commendable, but in my experience when it comes to review for promotion and tenure, committees want to see publication in the most “reputable” peer-reviewed journals, and faculty incentives for where to publish will be more guided by that immediate concern (keeping one’s job) than helping shift by a millimeter the market shares of open access versus gated journals (note that faculty can pay to have their own articles available for open access even when the journal is not: T&F will charge me $2,950 to have an article in one of the journals listed above available as open access). It would take a massive collective action by universities to shift this market, and that sort of coordinated effort is exceedingly difficult to achieve.
I won’t bash Elsevier, Springer, and other commercial publishers – they follow what is a sensible business strategy given the market conditions they face, and they are not charities. It’s lazy to think they are doing something underhanded and ought to play more nicely. What’s interesting to me is the (lack of) response by universities, whose faculty do the scholarship, referee the papers, edit the journals, and who let publishers charge them very high amounts for coordinating and packaging the finished product.