'Unusual forces' are pushing journal market off course

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Stacking up: concern is mounting over the rate at which journal publishers' prices are rising. Credit: M. XERIDAT

Libraries may be paying too high a price for scientific, technical and medical (STM) journals because the market lacks normal competitive forces, according to a report from the UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The OFT's consultation of libraries, publishers and scientific societies, published on 9 September, raised concerns that the prices of STM publications are rising faster than inflation. The large disparity in prices between commercial and non-profit journals was also noted. In 1995, the average price of a commercial STM journal was US$485; that of scientific-society journals was US$229.

The market is skewed, says the OFT, partly because STM journals tend to compete on quality rather than price. Cheaper journals are thus often sacrificed so that libraries with limited budgets can subscribe to well-regarded yet expensive rivals. 'Bundling', whereby publishers give discounts to libraries that provide electronic access to all or most of their journals, also distorts the market. The practice favours publishers with large portfolios, as librarians say it is often uneconomical to cancel individual journals in the bundle and replace them with more popular ones from another publisher.

But the OFT says that intervention in the market is unnecessary at present, arguing that schemes such as the Public Library of Science, a group of academics who aim to publish free-to-access journals (see Nature 412, 469; 200110.1038/35087732), could be a force for change in the future. “These emerging market forces are clear evidence that the market is already working,” agrees Derk Haank, chairman of Elsevier Science, the largest STM publisher.

David Prosser, director of Oxford-based SPARC Europe, an alliance of European research libraries and institutions, says he is glad the OFT has recognized the problem. “But it would have been useful for them to say something a little stronger,” he adds.

http://www.oft.gov.uk

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Goodman, S. 'Unusual forces' are pushing journal market off course. Nature 419, 239 (2002) doi:10.1038/419239b

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