Skip to main content

Not-for-profit journals more cost-effective, study says

September 15, 1999 By Donald Johnson

A study released by the UW-Madison library system confirms earlier findings that not-for-profit journals prove more cost-effective than commercial publications for scholarly research.

The study results are likely to be controversial in the academic world. Ten years ago, a science journal publisher sued two nonprofit organizations for publicizing a UW–Madison professor’s research that produced conclusions similar to this week’s findings.

View the report:
Measuring the Cost-Effectiveness of Journals

But the research is likely to aid librarians facing purchase decisions in an era of skyrocketing journal prices, says Kenneth Frazier, General Library System director.

Rising subscription rates have taken ever-larger chunks of library materials budgets over the past decade. At UW–Madison, for example, libraries worked with faculty last fall to cancel more than 500 journals. That brings the total number of cancellations to nearly 7,000 in the past 12 years.

Frazier says UW–Madison libraries have been conducting cost studies of journals since the 1980s. “They are intended to serve the academic community by expanding our knowledge about the cost-effectiveness of scholarly communication,” Frazier says.

There’s more at stake than money. Faculty members rely heavily on scholarly publishing to get promoted, win grants and receive recognition for their research. Their careers are profoundly affected by library cutbacks in subscriptions.

The latest study began last year on the 10th anniversary of a landmark research report by the late UW–Madison physics professor Henry Barschall. The eminent nuclear physicist created a scale of cost effectiveness by comparing the frequency with which articles were cited against the price of the library subscription per printed character.

Barschall, who was a member of the University Library Committee, studied the cost-impact ratios of 200 physics journals. He found that journals from commercial publishers generally had the lowest cost-impact.

Gordon & Breach, whose journals scored consistently at the bottom of the scale, sued in Swiss, German, French and U.S. courts against two nonprofit publishers of the results, the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society. American, German, and Swiss courts ruled in favor of AIP and APS; an appeal is pending in France.

The new research studied 293 journals spanning physics, economics and neuroscience. “By the measures employed here, commercially published journals in all three fields are significantly less cost-effective than journals published by not-for-profit enterprises,” the study says. In some cases, the difference is a factor of 910-to-one.

George Soete, a consultant with the Association of Research Libraries in Washington, D.C., conducted the latest research with Athena Salaba, a doctoral candidate in the UW–Madison School of Library and Information Studies.

The complete report, “Measuring the Cost-Effectiveness of Journals: Ten Years after Barschall,” is available by visiting:

Tags: research