Let’s all get angry about the Serials Crisis again

Something I’ve noticed lately in scholcomm and open access discussions on social media is a misunderstanding of the Serials Crisis. Typically when it gets referred to it is often interpreted that the ‘crisis’ is the high prices of scholarly publishers. The oligopoly they have and the 30% profit margins they make. This is a piece of the Serial Crisis, but what the Serial Crisis is really about is not the high costs, the dominance of a small number of publishers, or the high profit margins, it is about the rate by which scholarly publishers have increased their prices. I think this is an important distinction and I am going to try and explain why.

The price of serials usually goes up 5% – 6% per year while the rate of inflation is only around 2.5% per year (in the US). This essentially means that while the cost of everything else goes up 2.5% per year, the cost of serials goes up about double that.

This doesn’t seem like that big of deal though right? 2.5% and 5.5% are small percentages. An increase of a couple percentage like this is essentially just a rounding error, right?

The problem is it adds up. Let’s look at how Netflix prices would increase per decade with these rates.

Netflix Standard Subscription Cost (USD)


Increasing via Inflation (2.5%)

Increasing via Serials Crisis Rate ( 5.5%)

2018 $11.00 $11.00
2028 $14.08 $18.79
2038 $18.02 $32.10

This means if Netflix rates increase at the same price everything else is increasing, it should cost $18.02 in 2038, but if it were to increase at the same rate serials are, it would cost $32.10 in 2038. That’s almost triple the price of what it was in 2018. $20 more instead of just $7.

If we take these prices and apply them to the much more expensive serials, the increase in price gets all the more shocking. For example, University of Saskatchewan paid three hundred thousand for their subscription to Taylor and Francis Journals in 2016:

University of Saskatchewan – Taylor and Francis Journal Subscriptions  (USD)


Increasing via Inflation (2.5%)

Increasing via Serials Crisis rate ( 5.5%)

2016 $346,114.61 $346,114.61
2026 $443,055.96 $591,213.75
2036 $567,149.09 $1,009,878.50

So ten years from now University of Saskatchewan will be paying almost $150k more for Taylor and Francis journals than they should be. In 2036 they will be paying almost $500k more. $500k!

Taylor and Francis is only a mid-sized journal package for U of S as well. Their Elsevier journal package cost them over one million dollars in 2016, so the price increase for Elsevier will be even more crushing than that.

We are not finished with the bad stuff yet though. This gets even worse.

We’ve been making two assumptions with above. A) That library budgets are increasing similar to the rate of inflation (i.e. that libraries are getting a fair increase in money every year) and B) currency exchange rates aren’t a factor.

Fact of the matter just is that library budgets struggle to even keep up with the rate of inflation. A 2017 international study found that librarians predict their serials budgets will only increase by 0.8%.

Right now you should be asking how the hell do libraries even afford these journal subscriptions at all? And the answer just is: we can’t. Even our largest, most prestigious (read as ‘has the most money’) university libraries can’t afford them. That’s why inter-library loan exists, why libraries always seem to be cancelling journals, why Sci-Hub usage rates are skyrocketing, and why librarians fight so hard for open access every goddamn day.

Things also can get a bit more challenging if your country has a lower currency exchange rate than the US Dollar, which journal subscriptions are typically charged in. Canadian research libraries particularly have had a very rough go with this of late as our dollar has been dropping the last couple years. These small percentage drops also add up, as Western University Library from Ontario stated during a particularly bad period in 2015 “[…] a mere one-cent drop in the value of the Canadian dollar results in a $100,000 or more drop in our collections purchasing power”

The combination of the serials crisis, low library budget increases, and bad exchange rate all created a perfect storm in 2015-16 in Canada. With one of our national newspapers actually running a story about it. Think of how bad things had to be for a national newspaper to run a story about university libraries’ serial cancellations! Imagine trying to pitch that one to an editor.

(On a personal note I actually wrote a blog post trying to document these cancellations as one of my first posts. it received a decent amount of attention from librarians and inspired me to keep writing).

Let’s step back here for a second. As I mentioned at the start of this piece, it’s not really the cost of serials that is the issue, it’s how they increase. There’s a key distinction here. If Elsevier was still the massive company it is today, and it still charged a massive price to access it’s journal subscriptions, but this price increased at the rate of inflation every year, that could be manageable.

Yes, librarians would still work to and advocate for the prices to be fairer in this world. With the increase of prices being stable, it would be a lot easier for us to reach these arrangements. What makes the Serials Crisis so terrible is that it keeps libraries reeling. We can’t keep our balance so we can accurately defend ourselves when publishers keep jacking the prices up so much higher every year. We are forced to devote so much energy to finding this money. To begging for it. It becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism, like a poverty-trap, where we don’t have the people, time, or money to get better deals, so we are forced to keep paying for terrible ones.

What makes it even worse is that there are a lot of good scholarly publishers out there. Who increase their prices at fair rates, similar to inflation. It’s hard for libraries to find room for these publishers in their budgets when these high-rate-increase publishers eat up any extra wiggle room the libraries might have.

So it’s not the size of Elsevier that causes smoke to come out of serials librarians ears. It’s because most players in the scholarly publishing world are trying to play fair, but they aren’t (e.g. what is happening in Germany).

You don’t have to just take my word for it. Read this barn-burner of a report from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries. “There is an urgent need to address this situation and a coordinated approach across Canadian universities towards systematic change is essential.”

Think about that. This is the organization that represents Academic Libraries in Canada. That’s a very diverse collection of libraries and people. How often do you see an organization like that, made up of university representatives, advocate that there is an urgent need for systematic change? Things are bad, y’all.

How do we fix this? That systematic change. Collective action. Librarians can’t cancel this stuff if their users are demanding it. Outreach about open access and why it is needed is still the most important thing.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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