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Economy squeezes Harvard spending

Even elite universities like Harvard, with a $32 billion endowment, are reducing expenses. Among the cuts? Faculty subscriptions to academic journals that can cost $40,000 a year.

Kai Ryssdal: We saw a story the other day about Harvard University and how even with a $32 billion endowment, it's looking to cut back on expenses. Which is fine. Even the wealthy do have to be prudent.

What made us sit up and take notice was one particular cost the university wants to trim -- academic journals. Subscriptions, specifically, to things like "Nature" or "The Journal of Comparative Neurology," which can apparently run as much as $40,000 a year.

From the Education Desk at WYPR, Marketplace's Amy Scott is on it.


Amy Scott: When my family tries to save money we look at dropping subscriptions, too. But we're talking maybe $29.95.

Robert Darnton: "The Journal of Comparative Neurology" now costs $29,113 for a year's subscription, "Biochimica" about $20,000. I could go on and on.

Robert Darnton is university librarian at Harvard. He says bundled subscriptions of several journals costs as much as $40,000. Earlier this year, a council Darnton leads warned faculty those prices aren't sustainable.

Darnton: We the scholars do the research, write the articles, referee the articles, serve on the editorial boards -- all of this for free -- then we have to buy back the product of our own labor at a ruinous price.

Publishers say universities often pay far less than list price. Kent Anderson is CEO and publisher of the "Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery." He says his most expensive bundled subscription costs just over $1,000. But he says publishing for a small audience is expensive.

Kent Anderson: Unlike consumer publishing, where you can spread the costs over a couple of million readers or a few hundred thousand readers, you're spreading the costs over a few hundred readers. And that drives up the price.

And when you factor in the number of researchers and students who access a library subscription, Anderson says the per-use price is much lower.

Rick Anderson is the acting dean of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

Rick Anderson: What we're getting in return is access to a lot of really great content at a very good price, but just because it's a good value doesn't mean you can afford it.

Anderson says on average science journals are going up 8-10 percent a year. Library budgets are often flat or shrinking. Harvard wants more faculty to publish in free online journals, but few of them have the prestige of traditional publication -- and prestige can make or break a young academic's career.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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