For centuries, scholarly and science publishers have provided a vehicle for academics to share their work widely. In more recent decades, journals have incorporated a peer reviewed structure that has entrenched these publications as a vital source of information for those interested in advancing ideas and science. The first half of the 20th century saw great prosperity for academic publishing companies, who grew and merged into a handful of powerhouses. They controlled the market, what was published, and how content was accessed. Today, the market is still dominated by a few publishers: Springer, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, and SAGE.
In the second half of the 20th century, beginning in the 1970's, two crises emerged that would become the catalyst for the Open Access movement.
CC BY-NC-SA Philip Young
Since the 1970's journal prices have steadily and rapidly increases, outpacing inflation. The chart above shows the rise of book and journal costs from 1986-2005. These skyrocketing journal prices funded by stagnant library budgets created an unsustainable ecosystem.
Note that while this graph only covers 1986-2005, the price of journals has continued to rise steeply; the 2022 Library Journal Periodicals Price Survey still reported yearly price increases of about 3 - 4% or perhaps higher, while budgets have remained flat or declined.
While the importance of these resources often convinces libraries to continue paying for them, some have pushed back. In 2014, Harvard University Libraries famously criticized the publishers and their expensive journal prices, claiming they could no longer sustain the subscriptions with their budgets. Four years later, the University of California dropped their subscription to Elsevier's Big Deal. Many others did the same; in fact, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) maintains a list of big deal cancellations.
Journal editors, too, have resisted high journal prices. There have been a few famous cases in which entire editorial boards have resigned to start new journals:
- The board of Lingua resigned over high subscription costs to found their own, open access journal, Glossa. (2015)
- The board of the journal Informetrics resigned over Elsevier's policies and high articles processing fees and started the journal Quantitative Science Studies. (2019)
- The board of Critical Public Health resigned over high subscription costs to found the diamond open access Journal of Critical Public Health. (2023)
- More than 40 editors of the journal Neuroimage and Neuroimage: Reports resigned over high article processing fees to begin their own open access journal, Imaging Neuroscience, moving from a commercial publisher to a university press. (2023)
The high prices of subscription resources has been a major factor motivating the changes in the scholarly communication landscape.