Scientific article download costs | Code for Life

Just a quicky…
Grant Jacobs has just done a quick survey of the amounts charge for downloads of scientific papers. The cheapest charge $7, and most were $20 or more, the most expensive being $50 – and some only gave access for 1 or two days (obviously open access journals are not included).
This makes me wonder two things:
(1) how much money do journals get this way, and who (if anybody) buys?
(2) what’s the pricing model for access to individual papers?
Grant’s interest was peeked piqued when he saw a paper available for $0.99: would this iPhone appstore model rake in more money? I could see me paying €1 for a pdf of a paper I wanted, and it might reduce the “anyone out there got this paper” grey market.
I’m too lazy to do any research – does anyone know anything more than I do?

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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16 Responses to Scientific article download costs | Code for Life

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    Hm. I thought I had scheduled this for tomorrow. Oops.

  2. Leonardo de Oliveira Martins says:

    I remember at least this case study with e-books and this comment on online gaming which point to the same direction as you – lowering prices increase revenue/turnover.

  3. Maxine Clarke says:

    Make that “piqued”. (though “peeked” has a nice connotation, I agree)

  4. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks, Maxine. Silly me.

  5. Frank Norman says:

    Interesting questions, Bob. I wish I knew the answers. There has been a market in single articles for a long time, well before the Internet became the delivery medium of choice. We librarians call it document delivery and a typical US price was about $30. In UK the British Library offered a good service for a much lower price. When ejournals came along and publishers could offer single article pricing, the PPV (pay per view) pricing tended to be closer to the US document delivery prices so always looked expensive over here.
    Deepdyve is an interesting model – see my post last year. I haven’t heard much about it recently.

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    I’d be curious to know if there is any more to the pricing than a combination of:

    “What the market will bear”


    “What we’ve always charged”.

    Don’t have anything much useful to add to the discussion beyond that, though like many scientists I have had my own grumble about having to pay for access to PDFs of my own old work. [The comments thread is more interesting than the post, as it has some discussion and B/G, though I guess the issues will be familiar to most scientists.]

  7. Erika Cule says:

    (1) I know some people who purchased access to original research about treatments for a medical condition. They were then exasperated when the papers conflicted with each other and didn’t give a consensus as to the best treatment.
    I can’t imagine that patients (or carers) doing this make up a large proportion of readers paying-per-article though, or that they have much effect on the pricing structure.

  8. Tom Webb says:

    The ‘app’-style idea is attractive, and I can certainly see it bringing in some cash for publishers – plenty of people will pay out £1 or whatever for a paper (particularly if it’s easy to do through an iTunes-like interface), but will simply find something else to read / cite rather than pay out 30 times that, so the publisher gains £1 rather than losing £29. I’m surprised there aren’t more schemes, such as differing levels of subscription to a publisher, allowing access to different numbers of articles across all their journals. Or maybe there are?

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    I can’t remember ever paying the £20-30 charge for single article that I have sometimes been faced with if our library doesn’t have a subscription. I guess i have usually found an alternative source or gone for an inter-library loan.
    But the high cost does seem very difficult to justify. As Tom suggests, I think there might be a lot more business if the price dropped to something nominal and the publishers might even end up making more money. But what do I know? I don’t work in publishing.
    On which thought, it might be useful if someone knowledgeable from NPG could give us a view… hello. Hello! Anybody there?
    The Times has famously jut put their online news website behind a paywall, the walls of which seem to be rather high (£1 for 30 days is the intro offer but after that it’s £2/week). That’s maybe OK if you’re a regular Times reader but it is going to kill off casual traffic. They really need to think up a micro-payments system on the iTunes or Paypal model.

  10. Grant Jacobs says:

    One of the journals I mentioned in my article (PNAS, I think) has an option giving you temporary access for week to the whole journal.
    (I remember thinking that if you could save copies of the PDFs, this could be a good deal for someone who was happy to periodically update their collection of papers.)
    It would be good to hear from people within the industry. (I mentioned that it’d probably need an industry insider to spill the beans in a comment over my way too, vainly hoping someone might step in… no joy [I never get many comments anyway.])
    You thought about the Times subscription killing of casual access, sound similar in effect to something I wrote a while back about another news-reading option on my blog that offered different rates for single visits, subscriptions, etc. to a wide range of papers, local and international. I’m guessing that media need to think carefully about who constitutes their on-line readership. (I suppose they could, and probably do, gather IP stats to give themselves a bit of an insight.)

  11. Bob O'Hara says:

    I was hoping Maxine would say something more, but I don’t think she’s in the financial side, so she might not have access to the information and thoughts that went into NPG’s pricing strategy.
    I like Frank’s suggestion. I can see that could have happened a decade ago, and never been revisited.

  12. Austin Elliott says:

    Re. the Times online paywall, media coverage suggests it has dropped “casual readership” by 90%.
    I certainly won’t be subscribing, as it is not the print newspaper that I read. I do miss Mark Henderson’s excellent science coverage, but I’m not going to subscribe just for that.
    As people have said, an app-based small single article payment system might be a different matter.

  13. Frank Norman says:

    Ii have all kinds of contradictory thoughts about this.
    I think publishers are anxious about introducing low PPV pricing, in case institutions (libraries) cancel subscriptions in favour of PPV. OTOH, there is talk about usage-based charging, where the institution pays according to how many articles are downloaded. Usually it is suggested there would be a cap so that at a certain level of usage it turns into a subscription.
    Stephen says ne wouldn’t pay £30, I wonder whether even £1 is too much? If you had to pay for several articles a day it could soon mount up. And as Erika points out, you can never be sure that an article is exactly what you want. That is one of the thongs about the market in information: to make a sensible purchase decision you need to know exactly what you are buying, but if you get to see the information before you buy it then you don’t need to buy it!
    @Bob- what was my suggestion that you liked?

  14. Bob O'Hara says:

    I suspect most people who would want to download several articles would havea subscription anyway: they’ll mainly want a particular article (I’m thinking of people intersted in science but not actively doing research: the crowd that Ben Goldacre has mobilised, for example).
    Frank – I liked your suggestion that the pricing structure might have a historical basis.

  15. Frank Norman says:

    The Mesur project (Herbert van Sompel and Johann Bollen) showed how some literatures are read mainly from within the community that creates it, whereas others are also read from outside that community. Think of practitioners reading about research findings in their area, or technology implementers wanting access to the science underlying their field.
    These people will not have a need to subscribe but will need occasional access.

  16. Martin Hafner says:

    Unfortunately, in many cases it’s not only the readers who have to pay. In many cases the authors loose copyright and have to pay page charges in addition.

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