Students are losing already limited access to core academic research – research essential to a complete education. As a student, it’s no secret that academic journals are crucial to our research, our papers, and our understanding of both fine details and the larger, overall picture of everything we study. Yet, students often run into access barriers while to trying to do research, forcing us to settle for what we can get access to, rather than what we need most.
Outside the classroom, limited access to research has a tremendous impact on people’s lives. When doctors are denied access to medical research, patient outcomes suffer - especially in developing countries where medical professionals have even fewer resources to commit to research access. Even in business, small companies in cutting-edge fields lose opportunities to innovate when they don’t have access to the most up-to-date research upon which to build.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the way academic research is currently shared is that, even though you -- through your taxes and tuition -- underwrite a vast portion of research, you're denied access to the results unless you also pay often very expensive subscription fees.
Over the past two decades, the price of subscriptions to academic journals has increased tremendously, to the point where they’re often out of reach for students, even at the most well funded institutions. Many journals now cost in excess of $10,000 per year, with a few peaking at over $25,000 per year1, and your library can’t afford access to them all. For example, MIT has had to increase its journal budget by over 360% over 20 years to keep up with journal price increases, and the University of California-Berkeley has increased their journal expenditures by 1,300% over roughly the same period.2
Many schools don’t have the financial resources to keep up, so they’re forced to make choices – choices that mean students lose access to core disciplinary journals and must base their education on what’s available rather than what they need. In 2010 alone, the University of Georgia cancelled subscriptions to nearly 600 journals.3 Unfortunately this seems to be the trend among colleges and universities rather than the exception.4
The problem is much worse in the developing world where institutions can only afford a small fraction of the access they need, severely limiting both their students and their researchers. For example, a prominent researcher in India has said:
"Given such unequal access, Indian scientists inevitably struggle to perform world class science. The fact is that equitable access to current scientific information is essential if India is to take its rightful place in the world."5
Why do commercial publishers make such high profit margins? It turns out that the market for academic journals is unlike any other.8 The product, journal articles, is produced by researchers, then given to publishers for free in exchange for being published. After coordinating the peer review process, copy editing, and bundling articles together, publishers charge our campus libraries often exorbitant fees for access, though universities contribute significantly to the creation of articles.
While publishing certainly has necessary costs, today’s highest journal prices do not reflect the actual costs of publishing. Rather, these prices reflect publishers’ monopoly over the articles they publish, and the choice of some publishers to take advantage of their position as the sole point of access. If you’ve published before, you know an article can only be published in one journal, and it becomes the sole point of access. In order to learn and conduct research effectively, students and professors require access to as large a portion of the scholarly record as possible. So, libraries must subscribe to journals no matter what the price - that is, until they run out of money.
One way to illustrate the effect commercial publishers have had on journal prices is to look at the difference the cost per page between non profit and for profit journals.
Journals published for by for-profit companies are many times more expensive than those published by their non-profit counterparts.9 This result shouldn’t be too surprising: whereas non-profit publishers are usually scholarly societies whose mission is to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible, for-profit publishers’ interest is in maximizing profit. Finally, it’s important to note that nearly all journals used to be published by scholarly societies, but as commercial publishers have taken over and charged higher prices, as shown in the graph, access to this crucial information has gotten more and more expensive.
When we pay for research to be conducted, we believe that we have a right to the results of that research, especially when making these resources publicly available can have a positive impact for students, patients, doctors, researchers, small businesses, those in developing countries, and everyone else who uses academic research.
Every day that research is locked away behind price barriers, we miss out on opportunities that are possible when research is openly accessible and searchable. Today millions of articles are published every year - so many that a researcher could only hope to read a small subset of all articles in a given field, and never hope to be on top of all the latest developments. If the material wasn’t locked up, we could use computers to search across all journals at once, giving researchers an over-arching view of a particular field and uncovering trends that no human researcher could discern. What else might be possible without these barriers in place?
 "Expensive Journals List: Current MIT subscriptions costing more than $5,000/year," MIT Libraries, 07/16/09 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 06/13/10 (accessed 07/25/10)
 UGA Libraries, "Final List of Journal Cancellations," 07/28/10 (accessed 07/28/10)
 UCLA Library, "Comparable University Libraries," 01/28/10 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "Why India Needs Open Acces," Open and Shut?, 05/05/06 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "Elsevier 2009 $2 billion profits could fund worldwide OA at $1,383 per article," Heather Morrison, 04/27/10 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "Wiley STM: 3rd quarter profits up 18%," Heather Morrison, 04/26/10 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "The Business of Academic Publishing: A Strategic Analysis of the Academic Journal Publishing Industry and its Impact on the Future of Scholarly Publishing," Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, Winter 2008 (accessed 07/25/10)
 "The costs and benefits of library site licenses to academic journals," PNAS, Carl Bergstrom and Ted Bergstrom, 01/20/04 (accessed 07/25/10)
[Image 2] "Nature vs. Science, Pt. 2," Jorge Cham, PhD Comics, 07/17/2009 (accessed 07/25/10)