April 01, 2015
"Cheap as Chips"
10 min read
Joshua Piker talks Open Access and Quarterly Subscription Rates
Last fall, Karin Wulf, the OI’s Director, met in London with some of the key officials charged with designing and implementing Britain’s Open Access policies. In the course of that conversation, Karin pointed out that STEM journals and humanities and social science journals have very different subscription rates, and she instanced the Quarterly’s exceptionally low prices as an example. The response from one of the officials was simple: “It’s not my fault that your journal is cheap as chips.” And a slogan was born. You can be pretty sure to hear “cheap as chips” at any OI staff meeting that touches on finances. The Quarterly is cheap as chips, and we’re proud of that.
But are we really that cheap? It’s a complicated question that merits some discussion. Of course, we have to start by defining our terms. Given that we’re talking about an analysis of the Quarterly’s price structure vis-à-vis a particular object, we need to make sure that we’re referencing the right object. In this case, because the analyst in question was British, “chips” clearly refers to what inhabitants of the U.S. call “french fries.” But that still leaves us with the question of which fries we should be discussing. We need, in short, a baseline order of fries to serve as our comparator. Now, I’m partial to the fries served at Van’s Pig Stand in Norman, Oklahoma (especially if you put just a bit of the ‘hot’ BBQ sauce on them), and many of you will have a local variant in mind that’s likely almost as good. But a common point of reference is necessary, and so I would suggest that we designate McDonald’s version as the ur-fries. Not that they’re the best; they’re not. But they’re as familiar and unchanging as the Quarterly’s cover, and they have the added advantage that they really are cheap. A medium order of fries at McDonald’s will set you back $1.59.
As for the Quarterly, I would argue that the equivalent unit to an order of fries is one of our stand-alone pieces, that is, one of the essays or reviews that you get access to on the JSTOR site by clicking on a discrete link. This is not, to be sure, a perfect analogy. A medium-sized order of fries at McDonald’s gives you roughly the same number of fries every time you order it, but you might get a lot more content in an essay than a review; moreover, some reviews are relatively short and focus on a single book, while others are multi-book review essays that cover a dozen or more pages. But if you think of JSTOR as the “Value Menu” and the potential variation in content quantity as a “Supersize Me” experience, and if you squint just a bit, perhaps the analogy holds? At any rate, I’m going to run with it.
So, in 2014, the Quarterly published fifty-eight essays and reviews. If you paid french fry prices for that content you’d be out $92.22. In 2014, a print-only subscription to the Quarterly cost $45.00 for an individual and $90.00 for an institution. And thus the combined weight of a slightly flawed analogy and a little elementary school-level math shows us that the Quarterly really is cheap as chips. In fact, it’s cheaper. And that leads me to the two issues that are in this post’s subtitle, issues that are only tangentially related to french fries.
Debates about Open Access often take place at a level of abstraction that privileges not simply clichés about technology (“Information wants to be free”) and statements of moral principle (“Impeding the circulation of knowledge hinders human progress”) but also assertions about out-of-control costs. The comparator in these conversations, in short, is never an order of french fries. Instead, it’s the thousands upon thousands of dollars charged by commercial publishers for access to STEM journals. And fair enough. There are discussions that need to be had about access to scholarship and the transfer of resources from educational institutions to private companies. (For Karin’s recent contribution to those discussions, see her guest post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.) But those conversations must also recognize that there are other realities out there.
The Quarterly is cheap as chips. We’ve established that. In fact, the figures above dramatically understate how cheap the Quarterly is for many users. For most institutions and subscribers we’re much, much, much cheaper than chips. At William & Mary’s library, for example, the average click on a Quarterly article or review—a single-serving helping of the best scholarship in the field of early American history!—costs the library about five cents, a figure that librarians calculate by dividing the journal’s subscription cost by the number of clicks on its content by library users in a given year. By contrast, the cost-per-click figure for even the most frequently accessed STEM journals is deemed excessive in the $30-$50 range, and some STEM journals have a cost-per-click figure that’s over $1,000. But not the Quarterly. Five cents! My father talks about being able to get a serving of White Castle fries—I don’t want to brag, but my family has been doing comparative pricing analysis in the french fry subfield for over sixty years now—for a nickel back in 1950s Cincinnati. A nickel, though, isn’t going to get the job done at today’s McDonald’s.
But truthfully you don’t even need a nickel to read the Quarterly. If you don’t work at an institution that subscribes to the journal or you can’t afford or don’t wish to subscribe yourself, you can still read up to seventy-eight Quarterly articles a year for free simply by signing up for JSTOR’s “Register and Read” program. In short, the cost of the journal ranges from very, very affordable to free. Anyone with an internet connection can get access to an entire year of the journal’s content for nothing. It’s the academic journal-reading equivalent of a free lunch.
But the figures above gesture at another important issue, as well. If the Quarterly is going to continue to provide a venue for the best scholarship in the field, we need to be cheap as chips, and right now we’re not. In the last year, subscriptions covered about 30% of our direct costs, a figure that must rise as the both the OI (which subvents the majority of Quarterly expenses) and the field of academic publishing weather fiscal challenges. Everyone here at Team Quarterly is committed to making sure that the journal remains affordable and accessible, but its present-day needs and long-term financial health argue for a boost in subscription prices. Put another way, if the Quarterly is going to remain the Quarterly, it needs to be cheap as chips, but not dramatically cheaper. So, keep an eye on this blog for details about our new subscription rates.