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Rising Costs of Information

In the last twenty years, the cost of acquiring scholarly information for libraries and universities has risen significantly. A number of factors have contributed to this rise [1]:

  • More information from more researchers in more countries
    The amount of scholarship being published worldwide has been steadily increasing. Between 1995 and 2005, for instance, the rate of scientific and engineering publications increased approximately 2% per year and the number of authors has increased around 3% every year. Moreover, the effects of globalization in scientific literature are striking: while the USA still produces nearly a third of scientific research, output has been relatively stable. The growth in production from China between 1995 and 2005 has been at an annual rate of 17% and other Asian nations show increases in publication outstripping the USA and Europe. [STM Report, pages 18-21][2]

  • More access
    There has also been an explosion of databases offering indexes, abstracts and full text of scholarly articles. These have greatly increased the ability of researchers to find relevant material. But these options come with a high dollar cost, since each database represents an ongoing expense for the library.

  • Fewer publishers, increased concentration
    The worldwide scholarly publishing industry has seen significant consolidation during this period, primarily due to mergers and acquisitions. Currently, the ten largest publishers publish approximately 35% of scientific, technical and medical (STM) literature. Having fewer competitors, publishers experience little pressure to control costs. There is also a trend toward privatizing what were formerly heavily subsidized publications, with substantial price increases. The historic trend (1986-2004) for journal literature prices is to rise 3.3% above the consumer price index. [STM Report, page 24].

  • Higher prices
    The rate of inflation has been particularly steep in the scientific, technical and medical (STM) publishing field, sometimes exceeding 10% per year. Since these titles are already more expensive than those in the humanities or social sciences, this high rate of increase has a greater impact on library budgets.

  • Bundling
    In the last ten years, many publishers have "bundled" subscription packages, including many titles at one price. The per-title cost of these bundles is often much less than if the titles were bought separately. But because so many titles are included, the total cost of the bundle is high. Bundling also limits the library's flexibility, since they are "all or nothing" purchases, severely restricting the library's abilities both to drop less-used titles and to add titles that fall outside of the bundle. [STM Report page 15]

  • Older content online
    Publishers and vendors have digitized a large amount of older journal content. Accessing this content comes with ongoing cost, though. The library ends up paying recurring fees for material it already owns in paper.

  • Less savings than hoped
    Migrating publishing from print to online media has not resulted in the significant cost savings libraries had hoped for. Editorial costs are fixed regardless of format, and publishers claim the savings on printing costs are offset by the expense of maintaining servers and access controls for online versions.

  • Long-term sustainability and access
    Research libraries have often felt it necessary to continue buying titles in print, even when also available online, because of doubts about long-term accessibility of digital material. More titles are now deposited in digital archives such as Portico or LOCKSS [3], which Penn Libraries have joined to protect future scholarship; however these "insurance policies" represent a new cost. During this same period, library acquisitions budgets generally increased at a lower rate than inflation, eroding their buying power. (See chart 1 below). Hard choices are regularly required to determine what materials to acquire; in general, libraries are spending more for less content. In the 1980s and 1990s, the most common solution was to buy fewer monographs, so as to funnel more resources into serial subscriptions. (See chart 2 below.) By 2009, print monographs accounted for only 26% of the Penn Libraries' materials expenditures. In the 2000s, print serial subscriptions have also been significantly reduced, in order to pay for online resources. That tactic is nearing its exhaustion point, though, as print has now been dropped for most journals that are available online.

[1] For more detailed information and analysis see The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journals publishing
[3]Portico - and LOCKSS -


Chart 1
This chart shows the actual cost of Penn's serial purchases, both print and electronic, from 1999-2008, compared with the cost adjusted to remove inflation. It shows how the real buying power of Penn's collection development budget has decreased over this period.

Source of price data: Library Journal

Chart 2:
Similar to chart 1, this chart shows a similar, though more dramatic, decline in Penn's; monograph purchasing power, when adjusted for inflation.