In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Elsevier spokesperson defends their pricing practices:
“Over the past 10 years, our prices have been in the lowest quartile in the publishing industry,” said Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access. “Last year our prices were lower than our competitors’.
It’d be interesting to know what metric they’re using. If you take their entire catalog of journals and average together the subscription prices, you get something like $2500 per year. That is indeed in line with typical academic journal costs. But that average is potentially misleading, since it includes a couple of thousand cheap journals that you probably don’t care about, along with a few very high-impact journals that are priced many times higher. Want Brain Resarch? It’ll cost you $24,000 per year.
Of course, in a free market system, Elsevier is allowed to charge whatever it wants. And I’m allowed to decide whether I want to participate, as a customer and more importantly as a source of free labor (writing and refereeing articles for them).
Of course, even “normal” journal prices seem kind of exorbitant. Authors submit articles for free (and in some cases pay page charges), and referees review them for free. So why do we have to pay thousands of dollars per year to subscribe to a journal? I admit that I don’t understand the economics of scholarly journals at all.
If you’re an academic, you really don’t have much choice about participating in the system, but you do have a choice about where to donate your free labor. I tend to publish in and referee for journals run by the various scholarly professional societies (American Physical Society, American Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society). That way, even if the journals are the sources of exorbitant profits, at least those funds are going toward a nonprofit organization that does things I believe in.