For more than thirty years the spiralling costs of scholarly journal subscriptions (“the serials crises”) has been a hotly debated topic. Academics and librarians have pointed out the high profit levels of the major commercial publishers, despite the fact that the content is provided by unpaid authors and reviewers, which the publishers then resell to the universities of these same authors and reviewers. Publishers have attempted to justify their prices by cost increases, their IT-investments and the value they add. A useful framework for understanding the prevailing situation is Michael Porter’s five forces framework for explaining the competitive situation in any given industry. Despite claims to the contrary the degree of market concentration in scholarly publishing is not higher than in many other industries, and not the main cause of the problem. But the fact that the big deals of different publishers are complements rather than substitutes, means that essentially the leading companies don’t compete for customers, in contrast to other industries like mobile phones or automobiles. The high barriers to new entrants, partly due to journal ranking lists and impact factors, as well as the low bargaining power of suppliers and customers, explain why this industry has been so well protected from the disruptive forces of the Internet. The protected competitive position and high profitability is also the major reason why the big subscription publishers have been rather slow in adopting the open access business model.
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