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Why does it cost $20,000 a year to subscribe to a science journal?

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If you've ever wanted to read more about a science article here on io9, and clicked through to the original journal article to read more, chances are you've been met by a subscription page (like the one up top) that asks you to either log in or fork over a grip of cash to read the article in full.

If you're a college student, then your tuition fees likely help your school's library pay for access to subscription-only articles like these.


Institutions like universities pay large sums of money to access scholarly publishing sources (think peer-reviewed scientific journals like Nature, Science, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), but the cost of subscribing to periodicals like these has been climbing in recent years, even in the face of cuts to University funding — a fact that has many institutions balking at the idea of renewing their subscriptions.

To give you an idea of what kind of expenses we're talking about, the New York Times recently reported that the current price of Elsevier's scientific journal, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA), costs a university here in the US over $20,000 a year to subscribe to. It costs even more overseas.


Granted, Elsevier's journal subscription actually includes combined access to nine separate publications, and the cost for each individual reader (the university is paying for every one of its students to access the publications, after all) is relatively low. But it still doesn't get you access to all the other journals out there that require subscriptions. Besides, $20,000 is still a far cry from, well, free.

Because free is becoming a more viable alternative to pay-to-access journals every day. Opposite the subscription-fee spectrum from periodicals like BBA, Cell, and Nature are journals like PLoS One, which you've probably seen cited here on io9, accompanied by the parenthetical: "no subscription required."

That's because PLoS One is what is known as an "open access" journal. Material published in open access periodicals — including peer-reviewed, government-funded, and groundbreaking research — is available free of charge via the internet to any and all people interested in accessing it.

The open access model has seen explosive growth in recent years. Periodicals like PLoS One, unlike print journals, have no limits on the number of articles they can accept. This, in turn, means that they can accept articles for publication based purely on their scientific merit (as opposed to the perceived importance or timeliness of the research, for example).


Considerations such as these have allowed the open access platform to gain a firm foothold in a publishing market once dominated by traditional print journals, and has allowed PLoS One to grow into the largest scientific journal in the world.

But the growth of the open access model has been fueled by the rising prices of the classical subscription platform, as well. As open access journals become an increasingly viable alternative to traditional pay subscriptions, insofar as they allow people to stay connected with the latest advances in academic research, journals like Nature may find more and more universities refusing to renew their costly subscriptions.


To read more about how the open access model is changing the world of academic publishing, check out this excellent piece by D.D. Guttenplan, published in Sunday's edition of the New York Times.