The Market: How Economics Comes to Play in Access to Information

In the 1990s, attention was given to the digital divide: the hardware and networking that separated the haves from the have-nots. It is increasingly apparent that there is not only a digital divide, but a knowledge divide between those who can access the best, most recent information and those who confront constant barriers to access. This inequity plays out even with information to which many people have equal claim, such as taxpayer-funded research.

It plays out when a state-supported Historically Black College or University cannot afford the journals that another state-supported college down the road can afford, when community college faculty members are contributing to journals to which their school cannot subscribe, and when a faculty member cannot reprint her own writing for her students.

Market Issues at a Glance

Between 1986 and 2004, journal expenditures of North American research libraries increased by a staggering 273%, with the average journal unit cost increasing by 188%. During this same period, the U.S. Consumer Price Index rose by 73%, meaning that journal costs have outstripped inflation by a factor of almost 4. Here is a graph of this inflation rate:

graph showing increased cost of scholarly journals

  • Between 1975 and 2005, the average cost of journals in chemistry rose from $76.84 to $1,879.56. In the same period, if a gallon of gas had increased in price at the same rate, it would be $14.50/gallon today.

  • How much does your favorite journal cost?

  • On average, libraries pay 4 to 6 times as much per page for journals owned by commercial publishers as they do for journals owned by non-profit societies.

  • Higher prices mean that libraries cannot afford as wide and diverse a collection of journals as they have previously provided. The Appalachian State Library experiences an 8 to 10 percent annual inflation rate on journals and databases, meaning that even when we experience a flat budget, we have to cut 8 to 10 percent of our resources.

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