Why Is Access to the Scholarly Journal Literature So Expensive?

“For more than 30 years the spiraling costs of scholarly journal subscriptions, often called the “serials crisis,” have been a hotly debated topic. Academics and librarians have pointed out the high profit levels of the major commercial publishers, despite that the content they sell is provided by unpaid authors and reviewers. The publishers then resell it to the universities of these same authors and reviewers. Publishers have attempted to justify their prices by cost increases, their investments in information technology, and the value they add. A useful framework for understanding the situation is Michael Porter’s five forces model for explaining the competitive conditions in an industry. Despite claims to the contrary, the degree of market concentration in scholarly publishing is not higher than that in many other industries, and it is not the main cause of the problem. But because the big deals of different publishers are complements rather than substitutes, the leading companies essentially do not compete for customers, in contrast to other industries, such as mobile phones or automobiles. The high barriers to new entrants, partly due to journal ranking lists and impact factors, as well as the low bargaining power of suppliers and customers, explain why this industry has been so well shielded from the disruptive forces of the Internet. The protected competitive position and high profitability are also major reasons why the big subscription publishers have been slow to adopt the open access business model….”