• September 4, 2015

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

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.


1. monroews - October 13, 2009 at 04:06 pm

It is time for library directors to take a stand and cancel. Prices will stop going up when libraries stop accepting such price increases. If you were subscribing to this at home, would you accept such an increase? Then why accept it when you are paying with someone else's money? This is corporate greed, short and simple.

2. davidmo - October 13, 2009 at 04:13 pm

Why not just ask an alum to donate a subscription to their college/university library? They can do that for $24.95.

3. odulibrary - October 13, 2009 at 04:29 pm

The problem, monroews, is that if a library were to take the stand you suggest and cancel outrageously priced journals there would be faculty at the library director's door before the day was out complaining that the library was failing to provide necessary resources.

4. intplibrarian - October 13, 2009 at 04:36 pm


That would be considered fraud if someone was getting it specifically to save the library money. Same as if you use a friend's AAA card to get a tow when you're not a member yourself.

Also, donated journals come with a whole set of their own problems that are often more trouble than they're worth.

5. 22069241 - October 13, 2009 at 04:53 pm

Scientific American is not a STM journal. It is a popular magazine that is asking for libraries to absorb a 300% subscription increase in a single year.

6. myemotan - October 13, 2009 at 08:12 pm

What about a library staff having a personal subscription and informally (or even formally) making it available to the institution's library for public use? I used to subscribe to the journal's print version; now I subscribe only to the online version.

7. d_f_b - October 14, 2009 at 01:49 am

@odulibrary: If I were faculty at a library that cancelled their subscription to Scientific American, I'd simply figure that it was time for judicious use of interlibrary loan--somebody out there will absorb the price increase and have to cut acquisitions somewhere else, but I'd be just as happy if it wasn't *my* school's library.

8. zizzer - October 14, 2009 at 09:13 am

I'd drop it in a heartbeat.

When I was in grad school my institution's library had to make some tough budget cuts and a number of periodicals got the axe. Faculty were given the option of choosing which titles to cut, but when they would not cooperate the library staff made the cuts, including some highly regarded journals that were rarely used, with the promies that any needed articles would be procured through ILL. Initially, many faculty whined and complained and rolled in the floor, but in the following two year period there was not one ILL request from any of the cut titles.

9. chimborazo - October 14, 2009 at 09:53 am

I'd like to know where these librarians--and everyone else for that matter--were when this title shifted from a forum in which researchers could present their research to the educated layperson, to a mere alternative to Discover and other periodicals written by journalists instead of actual researchers. I cancelled my personal sub years ago because of this shift. The price jump would possibly be justifiable if Sci. Am. in the first case; there's no reason to continue carrying it in the second, at those prices.

10. andrew0261 - October 14, 2009 at 09:57 am

Ouch! That's gonna hurt us small colleges (specially hard)! And that's one of the favorites 'round here (judging by usage stats)... Problem with cancelling and getting from a nice "alumn" or "staff member" (as mentioned above) is that it's not as efficient as it might seem. We get donated subscriptions all the time, and, well, we're at the whim of the nice professor, alumn, what-have-you... And then one of them goes and dies on me (Rest in Peace, good man!), and the widow is not in a position to continue the generous offer! I mean, I see the point for the Pubs (they're in the same boat we are, I guess), but have help us out a bit! Bring it up slowly or something!

11. dank48 - October 14, 2009 at 09:58 am

That's a 648% price increase, btw.

Things change, including SA. I'd been reading it pretty steadily until the hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg. A magazine edited by people who ignore the principle that one should not be the judge of one's own case is a magazine I don't need to spend my time on.

Scientific American has no patent on reality, clearly. There are other means of keeping up with things.

12. intplibrarian - October 14, 2009 at 11:13 am


Unfortunately (maybe?), that's not how ILL works. Once your library has asked for more than 5 articles from a specific journal title (or more than 1 article within a specific issue), they are required to pay copyright fees on each article requested, which are around $30 or so, usually. So, it's still your library that's absorbing a cost.

Which isn't to say you shouldn't use ILL to get your articles! The stats on ILL are often used as justification to subscribe (or re-subscribe) to a journal. If you need the articles, please do request them! Just don't do it out of spite alone.

13. mbelvadi - October 14, 2009 at 11:45 am

#12, First, the "more than one article within a specific issue" is wrong - it's one of the myths in the ILL world that simply has no basis in copyright law or even the standard guidelines. The "5 in 5" rule (you can only get for free 5 articles within the most recent 5 years of the publication, within a single calendar year before you have to start paying royalties) isn't actually in law either, but does appear in a guideline document that was included in some congressional hearings and therefore many people do treat it as relevant to "fair use".
Also note that none of that applies outside the US - in Canada, there is no "5 in 5" rule at all. Libraries are free to borrow an unlimited number of articles. The publishing industry gets away with a lot of gouging in the US that it can't do in other countries. US librarians tolerate it because they have no idea that it could be different, much less that it is different in other developed nations.

14. gcsulibrary - October 14, 2009 at 03:45 pm

While SciAm was nice to have around for the last 150 years plus, it is a magazine and not a necessary part of our academic collection. It did, however, have a place in academia, primarily on the display rack for our humanities students. What are the folks over at Nature thinking??? A modest price increase would have been tolerable but this is absurd. Surely the title was still profitable, does anyone know differently? I am not a sentimentalist and I am all for online news but this is more disturbing than the collapse of the print newspaper industry. Science News, Discover, and several other titles are suitable alternatives.

15. librariesforever - October 14, 2009 at 04:13 pm

Did anybody that that maybe Nature is try to kill Scientific American? Nature offers enough other high priced research journals. Why do they need SciAm? Are just trying to see who is foolish enough to pay the price for this journal or should I say magazine?

16. rocklady - October 15, 2009 at 03:54 pm

Nature needs to practice some Natural Birth Control. Who let them buy SciAm anyway??

17. hccbrandonlibrary - October 21, 2009 at 10:17 am

We're cancelling. Hopefully SA will remain able to stay in business as I suspect many other institutions will have to (reluctantly) make the same decision. Indeed, that kind of a price hike makes it appear that The Nature group does not want our business.

18. wulibn - November 06, 2009 at 06:53 pm

Cancelled the library subscription, not even reluctantly. Our students don't read print magazines much for leisure any more, and for research there are plenty of other options.

19. 11188056 - November 23, 2009 at 03:27 pm

This will be our last subscription for Scientific American. Our budget at a small community college can not afford to keep it.

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