Paywalls and subscriptions have been portrayed in some extreme lights. Paywalls have been equated with censorship. Subscriptions have been described as debilitating to institutional budgets.
Yet, when you look at the data, these portrayals don’t seem to be based in reality.
I recently tackled two explorations of a set of subscription data provided earlier this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education. These analyses showed that subscription spending across hundreds of institutions is between 30% and 40% of overall library expenditures, and that there are relatively low per-serial costs, with some differences between public and private institutions. They also showed that as a share of institutional budgets — which have grown quite a bit larger with escalating costs to attend college — subscriptions are a very small share, on average 0.5%.
The data from the Chronicle are useful because they separate subscriptions from the more general “materials” expenditures and from salaries and facilities costs. The data also provide interesting comparisons between private universities and colleges and their public counterparts, as well as insights into what percentage of serials are accessed electronically (78% for public schools, 85% for private, by the way).
For example, at Harvard University, the amount spent on subscriptions is just over 10% of the library budget, and the cost-per-title is about $28.
In the first analysis I published, I calculated the cost-per-serial. Public universities spent $1.285 billion for access to 54.7 million total titles. In aggregate, the cost per title was $23.48. Private universities included in the Chronicle data spent $859.3 million for access to 45.9 million total titles (both physical and electronic). In aggregate, the cost per title for private universities was slightly lower, coming in at $18.74.
These data held a few surprises, notably that private universities are paying on average a lower price for each subscription, and that spending can be so variable. Also, public universities seem to have larger holdings, and there apparently is still a demand for print serials.
The larger point that emerged was about the cost-per-serial, which seemed like a bargain to these eyes, with the aggregate coming in around $21 per serial when you combine the public and private schools’ expenditures.
After this, I wanted to see what the burden of subscriptions was when it comes to institutional budgets. I sampled 60 institutions, 10 institutions from the top spenders, median spenders, and smaller spenders for both private and public institutions, calculating the share of institutional budgets dedicated to subscription purposes.
For the sampling of public institutions, subscription costs amount to 0.41% of total institutional budget. For the sampling of private institutions, subscription costs amount to 0.59% of institutional expenses. Averaged, the two amount to 0.5% of the institutional budgets of these 60 institutions.
The institutions included by the approach described above ranged from Ivy League universities to state universities to private liberal arts colleges to medical colleges to technical colleges. It was a decent sampling of the space in that respect.
The price increases for subscriptions have been relatively modest year over year for the past decade. The recent news that BioMedCentral — an OA-only publisher dependent on APCs — raised its average APC this year by more than 50%, and launched 33 more APC-based journals. APCs are not immune to price increases, and as more submissions increase the pressures on OA journals, APC rates may rise quickly and steeply.
Each of the posts about subscription pricing cited above has far more detail than presented here. The impression I’m left with from these data is that, on average, subscriptions are not overly expensive on a per-title basis, and that the burden of subscriptions on institutional budgets is not something that is driving up tuition or changing institutional priorities. What everyone — institutions, publishers, libraries — is dealing with is an asymmetry in the market, which I’d describe as a rapid increase in volume due to the entry of China in the market, a country which pays a only a fraction of the costs it creates, leaving established market players dealing with the financial implications of their productivity.
I have a few more ideas of how to combine these data with other sources to explore whether this spending is truly as efficient and sustainable as it appears to be.