Online Databases for the Masses

Writing on the exorbitant prices charged my most online journal databases, Arnold Kling argues,

I think that the main problem here is that journals are funded by subscriptions from college libraries. If college libraries were de-funded, the journals would have to find revenue models that are consistent with 21st-century technology and economics.

Maybe I am thinking about this all wrong, but would we suffer similar pricing problems even if universities were funded privately?  I realize that that is not what Kling is saying; I am bringing up a tangential point, or at least making an observation.

Universities subscribe to these online databases to provide their students with access to a wide variety of journals.  I am not really sure why exactly universities do this, but I figure it is to promote an academic environment.  Professors usually assign journal articles from these databases, and students also tend to search through them to support their arguments in the papers they write and whatnot.  The point is that there is some reason for universities to subscribe to online journal databases.

If we assume that all universities are privately funded (for the sake of argument), would we not have the same pricing problem?  Universities, which require a certain amount in tuition from every student, are in a better position to buy these subscriptions.  No less, if the price to subscribe were cheaper, the likelihood is that most students would not subscribe (much like most students are probably not subscribed to the New York Times, which is only $15 per month).  So, we can look at tuition as a tax, and database subscriptions as a “public” investment (where the public is the university library, in this case).  Those who do not use the database are nevertheless “forced” to subsidize other students’ use, because that is just how the university decided to use their tuition. (One might argue that libraries may choose not to subscribe, but I think that there is an incentive to do so — if not all students are subscribed through the library, then professors cannot really assign their students certain readings, and students do not have a uniform research database.)

My point is that we would still see this university demand for online databases, and just like it is now, there is no reason for these databases to target individual consumers.  They make more money off universities, because universities enjoy the purchasing power of a forced tuition on thousands of students.  In other words, universities basically “coerce” (I use these words [i.e. force and coerce] very loosely, and I am not trying to imply a negative relationship) a very large population to subscribe to these databases — and when you divide the total cost of subscription by the number of students who can now use the database, the per capita cost is actually probably relatively low.

What this suggests to me is that if there is a problem with the cost of subscription then the problem is not found in library funding, but rather in the database market.  For some reason, there is very little competition and therefore very little downward pressure on prices.  Maybe this is the nature of academic publishing: there are only relatively few high-end academic journals.  Or, if the goal is really lower costs, then maybe the solution can only be found in “socializing” academic journals, in the sense of forcing them to contribute to a common database for university research (which, actually, is not a bad alternative to the current system we have now [since many university libraries are publicly subsidized anyways]).

Or maybe writers and editors, and the academic community in general, should start shifting to open databases — cutting the profit from the academic publishing game altogether.

I actually think that slowly but surely we are shifting to cheaper methods of publishing and distribution.  The slow pace is largely a product of university policies giving incentives to professor to publish in more highly respected journals.  So, professors do not really have an interest in moving to more open journals, because their jobs require otherwise.

I, obviously, have no experience in this area though.  These are just my thoughts from what I have read so far.

  • Silvano

    This reminds me that also the books where students study, on average cost more than the others. It’s a fact that they have a less elastic demand (like subscriptions). Only abolishing copyright laws things will be different. But this is beyond the issue about the nature of who is funding what.