Weighing up the cost of journals

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Librarians dread heavy year-on-year increases in journal prices - but the extent of this issue varies greatly between publishers. Last year Oxford University Press commissioned independent research to discover some of the facts behind journal pricing. Siân Harris reports

The average increases in journal prices over the period from 2000 to 2004 varied from 27 per cent to 94 per cent, depending on the publisher, and median prices per journal also varied enormously. These are some of the findings of recent independent research from LISU, the UK's national research, consultancy and information centre based at the Department of Information Science at Loughborough University.

LISU analysed data from subscription agent Swets of the journal prices of 12 scholarly publishers from 2000 to 2004, with 1993 taken as a comparison. The publishers, representing around 6,000 journals in all subject areas, were: Blackwell Science and Blackwell Publishers; Cambridge University Press; Elsevier; Johns Hopkins University Press; Kluwer; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Nature (specialist journals); Oxford University Press; Springer; Sage; Taylor & Francis; and University of Chicago Press.

The lowest price increase (27 per cent) over the time period was from Cambridge University Press, while Sage had a 94 per cent price increase. The study also revealed wide disparities in median overall journal prices between the publishers studied. Cambridge University Press was again the cheapest at £124 in 2004, while Elsevier's journals were the most expensive, with a median price of £781 in the same year. Elsevier's journals were also found to have the highest median price in every subject area.

LISU also carried out more detailed analyses of prices in relation to number of pages and impact factors for biomedical titles. It found that median journal prices in this subject area ranged from £186 (Johns Hopkins University Press) to £731 (Elsevier) in 2004. And biomedical journal price increases over the period 2000 to 2004 ranged from 27 per cent (Johns Hopkins University Press) to 92 per cent (Sage). From 1993 to 2004 the median price increases of biomedical journals ranged from 80 per cent (Taylor & Francis) to 352 per cent (Sage).

Oxford University Press (OUP) showed the lowest median price per page of biomedical titles from 2001 to 2004, with only Cambridge University Press lower in 2000. In 2004 the median price per page for OUP was 31 pence, while the highest median price per page was 98 pence in the same year for Taylor & Francis. At 25 per cent, Springer displayed the lowest increase in median price per page of biomedical journals from 2000 to 2004, compared with the highest increase, 69 per cent, from Taylor & Francis.

The link with impact factors
The range of biomedical journal impact factor values is quite wide, both within and between publishers. Within publishers, the greatest range in 2002, which was the latest year for which data were available, was from 0.333 to 32.890 for Lippincott Williams & Wilkins journals. Between publishers, the mean impact factor values of biomedical journals ranged from 1.47 (Kluwer and Springer) to 4.84 (Nature) in 2002.

With one exception, there was an overall increase of between 22 per cent (Kluwer) and 77 per cent (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) in mean impact factor values of biomedical journals over the period from 1992 to 2002. The exception was Taylor & Francis, which saw a fall of 4.1 per cent.

Despite the wide ranges in both impact factors and prices, the study found little evidence of a relationship between the two for biomedical journals, although the few correlations that exist suggest that higher prices tend to be associated with higher impact factors. On the basis of price-per-point of impact factor of biomedical journals, OUP had the lowest median with a cost of £156 for the most recent year. The highest was Kluwer, at £525 for the same year.

The LISU report was commissioned by Oxford Journals, a division of OUP. 'There is much debate and conjecture within scholarly publishing surrounding the issue of pricing,' explained Richard Gedye, Oxford Journals sales director. 'We felt that in the absence of any other such studies, it would be timely to invest in some quantitative data.'

'Serials continue to be a key component of scholarly communication, and their pricing and affordability is a major preoccupation for those who create and use them,' added Eric Davies, director of LISU. 'Although [the report] represents a snapshot of only part of the entire serials landscape, it provides the basis for further investigation and discussion on this important topic.'

Further reading
Scholarly Journal Prices: Selected Trends and Comparisons (Sonya White & Claire Creaser, LISU, 2004), www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dis/lisu/pages/publications/oup.html