College Library Directors Protest Huge Jump in 'Scientific American' Price

October 13, 2009

A group of 50 library directors has sent a letter to the managing director of the Nature Publishing Group, protesting a huge increase in the price of institutional subscriptions to Scientific American. Among the signers of the letter are the head librarians at liberal-arts colleges including Amherst, Bowdoin, Bucknell, Carleton, Colgate, Denison, Franklin & Marshall, Haverford, Kenyon, Oberlin, Rollins, Vassar, and Washington and Lee.

Scientific American is probably the nation's most venerable source of science news written for a general audience. The Nature group, which took over the magazine this year, proposes to charge $299 for a 2010 print subscription—up from $39.95—and as much as $1,500 for an annual license for online access—up from $1,000—depending on how big the institution is.

The libraries' directors called the increase "unreasonable" and said that it "hinders our ability to meet the information needs of our library users." They complained that the announcement was made as many libraries were finalizing their budgets for the year, which gave them little time to poll users and decide whether to cut Scientific American. They pointed out that the price increase comes during a painful recession, when most libraries are looking to cut items from their budgets and are asking publishers to keep subscription prices steady or lower them. And they warned the publishing group that its actions "are likely to result in many libraries canceling subscriptions, thus threatening the future of a historically important magazine."

The directors also said that the publisher's decision failed to take into account the role that Scientific American plays in libraries. It is not "a core scholarly journal," they said, but a vehicle for more general dissemination of scientific findings, and should be priced accordingly. "While we understand that all publications need to be financially viable, such a dramatic increase at the present time indicates that short-sighted commercial interests have overturned Scientific American's traditional mission of disseminating scientific knowledge to its broad readership," the directors said.

A spokesperson for the Nature group told Library Journal that the publisher wanted to consult with its customers before commenting on the directors' letter. "In order to continue publishing at the highest level of scientific journalism, Scientific American must price its content at sustainable levels," the group said in a separate statement also quoted by Library Journal. "Pricing for institutional print subscriptions had been static for years, and did not reflect the size of institution. We have now revised prices for institutional print subscriptions, based on the type of institution, and to take into account anticipated readership based on the number of faculty and students. This brings Scientific American in line with the institutional pricing model adopted by" other scientific, technical, and medical publishers, the statement said.