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November 16, 2006

Journal of Natural History: A Cautionary Tale

Below is a message that came to me via SLA's Natural History Caucus listserv. It recounts the history of a once-illustrious journal that in it's early days published several papers from Darwin and his colleagues but is now probably being priced out of the range of many scholarly libraries.

Another Bergstrom & Bergstrom article on the economics of publishing ... this time on Ecology
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 4, No. 9, pp. 488-495.
The economics of ecology journals
Carl T Bergstrom, and Theodore C Bergstrom

Note the cautionary tale on "Journal of Natural History" on pp. 494-495:
[How many [libraries] canceled print in favor of online in the last few years?]

"In 1844, 15 years before the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published a pair of articles (Darwin 1844a,b) in a fledgling natural history journal, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History. This journal had been founded by publisher Richard Taylor and his son William Francis in 1840, who merged several British natural history titles dating back to 1828. The journal published five of Darwin's papers in total. Darwin's contributions to The Annals focused on the specifics of natural history rather than on the theory of evolution. However, the journal earned a prominent place in the history of evolutionary biology, as the venue for Alfred Russell Wallace's 1855 manuscript "On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species" (Wallace 1855). In that paper, published 3 years before the famous Darwin-Wallace outline of natural selection (Darwin and Wallace 1858), Wallace drew upon his own phylogeographic observations to conclude that new species must arise from pre-existing species, giving rise to a tree-like relationship among taxa.

One hundred and fifty years later, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History continues to be published, still under the name of Taylor and Francis, which has morphed into an international publishing conglomerate that publishes 800 periodicals. The journal is now titled The Journal of Natural History. Perhaps due to shifts of scientific fashion, the journal's prestige is not what one might expect given its history: its impact factor was an unimpressive 0.611 at the time of our first survey in 2001. While the 2001 price per page, $0.77, was modest for a for-profit publisher, the price per citation, $19.21 was among the highest in the field of ecology.

Taylor and Francis responded to the low impact factor in two surprising ways. First, they increased the size of the journal, from 2323 pages in 2000 to 3347 pages in 2004. Second, they dramatically increased the price, from $1784 for print in 2001 to $6735 for the print plus online combination in 2005. Even accounting for the increased number of pages, this represents a near-doubling of the price per page. By 2004, the impact factor had dropped to 0.514 and price per recent citation rose to a staggering $90.37. (Only the translated Russian Journal of Ecology is more expensive per recent citation; the next closest is Ekologia Bratislava, which costs $34.50 per recent citation.)

Why is it that, despite its low impact factor and falling subscriptions, Taylor and Francis has radically increased the subscription price of the oldest journal in ecology, and the only one that can claim Darwin as an author? Evidently the publisher is banking on the proposition that libraries will be slow to cancel a journal with such an illustrious history, even at $6735 per year. In the long run, it is unlikely that pricing at $90 per recent citation is sustainable. We suspect that the journal may be heading into a "death spiral" of increased prices, reduced circulation, and falling impact factor. Although the publisher may earn substantial profits along the way, charging ever higher prices to ever fewer subscribers, this would be a sad end for a venerable publication."

Posted by Katie Newman at November 16, 2006 12:24 PM