Is there a serials crisis yet? When it comes to Theological and Religious Studies journals, I’d have to say yes

The last time I was in a sustained lazy phase about blogging it was a choice piece of satire written by Dorothea Salo that got me writing again. Who would have thought that Salo would again get me off the couch?

The other day, over on Library Journal’s website, Salo published a short piece entitled “Is There a Serials Crisis Yet? Between Chicken Little and the Grasshopper,” which, as it happens, I read the evening after participating on a panel presentation at the American Theological Library Association’s annual conference in New Orleans. The panel was entitled “Open Access: Responding to a Looming ‘Serials Crisis’ in Theological and Religious Studies.” My role on the panel was to place the case for open access within a context that suggested unsustainable journal pricing was no longer limited to disciplines in the Sciences. Although Humanities journals, including those in Theological and Religious Studies, are still typically priced at a fraction of Science journals, I provided evidence that rapid increases in prices over a relatively short period of time pointed to a looming serials crisis in our disciplines.

The serials crisis is not a new phenomenon. But Salo believes we’ve perhaps allowed the issue to simmer, and it “hasn’t felt like an immediate, all-hands-on-deck crisis in some time.” She thinks it “might finally be heating up into one. Into many, really; the localized nature of serials pricing means that crises hit consortia and individual libraries at varying times, not all of academic librarianship at once.” I would say that a pricing crisis focused within a discipline is another example of this “localized nature.” I appreciated her definition of the crisis situation:

I’ll suggest that the situation with serials has at last reached crisis for a particular library or consortium when two things happen: libraries and publishers can no longer conceal the damage from faculty and institutional/consortial administration, and the broad base of faculty can no longer ignore it.

The damage that can no longer be concealed or ignored is quite simply reduced access, as I put it in my presentation:

When the cost of journals increase dramatically in a relatively short period of time, beyond the capacity of library budgets to keep up, the result is reduced access to research for our users.

Salo would seem to approve of our efforts to raise the alarm within our “localized” disciplinary context:

My sense is that papering over the cracks will stop working very soon for many libraries, if it hasn’t already. … Rather than doing so silently and shamefacedly, little more than a cancellation list buried deep in the library website to mark the event, they explained their action with press releases and showed their work. A few libraries of every size whose budgets haven’t yet hit the wall have likewise chosen to signal publicly in the last couple of years that trouble is near or already here…. I don’t think publicly throwing up our hands over serials prices is defeatist or irresponsible; I think it’s no more than smart public relations. If there’s a single academic library that won’t hit the wall in the next five years (barring miracles), I don’t know which it might be, unless it’s a library whose faculty’s expectations are already so low that they don’t even expect more than a trickle of serials access. Once a library hits that wall, it seems to me that the first question faculty are likely to ask is “Why didn’t you warn us?” The best answer available is “We did.”

Salo doesn’t believe that open access is the only way to cope with the “looming local serials crisis” (her words echoed serendipitously in our panel title). I agree. But open access is one new and viable response that we are trying to offer our disciplines.

Preliminary evidence for a looming serials crisis in Theological and Religious Studies

journal pricesAs I mentioned, when we think of the “serials crisis” we have tended to associate it with journals in the Sciences. Humanities journals, including titles in Theology and Religion are priced at a fraction of Science journals. I threw this table up on the screen from figures I pulled from the 2014 Library Journal Periodical Price Survey. Since Philosophy & Religion journals are so “cheap” we might be tempted to ask, “So what’s the problem?”

To illustrate the problem as I see it, I shared some in-progress research I am doing on title and price changes for Theological and Religious Studies journals published by the Big 5 commercial academic publishers:

  • Elsevier (0)
  • SAGE (21)
  • Springer (8)
  • Taylor & Francis (39)
  • Wiley-Blackwell (21)

In 2014, four publishers publish a total of 89 titles. (The number of titles published by each are listed in the parentheses. Elsevier’s sole title, Religion (ISSN 0048-721X) was transferred to Taylor & Francis in 2011.)

Next, I took two title and price “snapshots”, comparing retail print+electronic institutional subscription prices for the years 2000 and 2014, enveloping a period of 15 years. After eliminating 14 titles not yet published in 2000 and another 27 I was unable to get 2000 pricing on in time for the presentation, I was left with a nice sample of 48 titles.

The total price for those 48 titles in 2000 was $4,632, an average of $96.50 per title. The change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a measure of inflation over time from 2000 to April 2014 was +37.7%, an average of +2.5%/year. If inflation was the only price factor, those 48 titles in 2014 should cost $6,378, or an average of $133 per title.

journal prices 2What I found was that those 48 titles in 2014 actually cost $20,904, an average of $435.50 per title. This works out to a price increase of 351.3% in 15 years, an average of +23.4%/year—well over 9 times the rate of inflation! (Incidentally, if you want to purchase all 89 titles they will cost you $43,028.)

The problem that signals a looming serials crisis in Theological and Religious Studies is not the cost of journals relative to more expensive journals in the Social Sciences, or significantly more expensive journals in the Sciences. The problem is the dramatic and rapid increase in cost as a percentage change impacting flat or declining library budgets.

What has accounted for this rate of increase? This is a question I hope to answer more fully as my research continues. To date I have spent the most time researching the interest of SAGE in acquiring journals in Theological and Religious Studies. 20 of the 21 titles currently published by SAGE have been acquired since 2000. While several titles were acquired from other commercial publishers, the majority have been added through publishing partnerships with scholarly societies and academic institutions. Typically, when a society or academic journal is acquired the subscription price rises significantly in the following year or two. As a commercial publisher, SAGE must rationalize all costs of production (excepting, of course, costs for author article submissions and peer review, which scholars provide to the publisher for free) and figure a comfortable profit margin.

The publisher when approaching a society or academic institution will tout its professional publishing services, global reach, royalty returns to support society programming, and leverage of publisher reputation. But you can be sure they’ve done their homework. The publisher is unlikely to acquire a journal property that cannot return a profit. The publisher needs to leverage the established reputation of the journal at least as much as the supposed reputation it is lending to the journal.

When (if) libraries complain, the publisher will contend that the journal was severely under-priced/under-valued when run by the society. They will retort that a journal run by volunteers or subsidized through release time is itself unsustainable, failing to see the sense that a society might prioritize scholarly communication on different criteria and on a different fundamental mission—supporting research production and knowledge dissemination. (Incidentally, in my mind a publisher that entices a society to turn their journal into a source of revenue—even to support other programming—threatens this fundamental mission.)

Dorothea Salo asks, “Is there a serials crisis yet?” When it comes to Theological and Religious Studies journals, I’d have to say yes. It is no solution to claim that Theological and Religious Studies journals are “cheap” compared to other disciplines. The impact of these kinds of price increases is inevitably reduced access to research as titles start getting cut.

Incidentally, one title of the 89 total above is open access. It is the International Journal of Dharma Studies, started at the end of 2013 and published by Springer. I wrote about it here. It is of interest to me to watch this development. As a commercial publisher, Springer will still want and need to see a return on their investment. Their open access solution is to shift cost recovery and profit-making to the producer side of research by levying article processing charges (APCs). The potential for reducing pressure on the consumer side of research could be significant. But I’m not sure if it is ultimately a solution for the serials crisis when we consider the scholarly communication ecosystem as a whole. I will doubtlessly pick this topic up in subsequent posts. In the meantime, thanks again Dorothea for helping me get off the couch and back in front of my computer.



Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals
3 comments on “Is there a serials crisis yet? When it comes to Theological and Religious Studies journals, I’d have to say yes
  1. Brad Ost says:

    Thanks, Gary. Started my work day looking at the 350% increase in 15 years. At least I’ve got nowhere to go but up from here. 🙂

  2. Jeroen Bosman says:

    Not wanting to defend high price increases I do think that you should take into account the number of papers published in the average journal in the various fields and how this develops. The typical humanities journal my have 4-6 issues with 4-8 papers, so 16-48 papers per annum. The typical chemistry journal may have 8-12 issues with 24-48 papers resulting in 192-572 papers per annum. This partly explaines the big interfield journal cost variety.

    I suspect that the pressure to publish and sheer growth of the number of researchers has caused these numbers to rise over the past few years, also in humanities. That also partly explaines the rising journal costs. So take a per article view. Or we should decide to write less and read and think more 😉

  3. waltcrawford says:

    Coming in a bit late (I just now learned of this blog). While the volume of articles per journal is a factor, it’s not the only one. Looking at gold OA journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals that are accessible to English speakers, a minority of which charge author-side fees, the weighted fee per article for 2013 was $300 *per article* for chemistry…and $5.75 *per article* for religion. (Chemistry wasn’t the highest: that was physics, at $941. Religion wasn’t the lowest: that was law, at $0, because none of the gold OA law journals charged fees. The count included 65 religion journals, of which eight charge fees.)

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