Scholarly Communication and the Dilemma of Collective Action: Why Academic Journals Cost Too Much

John Wenzler

Abstract

Why has the rise of the Internet—which drastically reduces the cost of distributing information—coincided with drastic increases in the prices that academic libraries pay for access to scholarly journals? This study argues that libraries are trapped in a collective action dilemma as defined by economist Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. To truly reduce their costs, librarians would have to build a shared online collection of scholarly resources jointly managed by the academic community as a whole, but individual academic institutions lack the private incentives necessary to invest in a shared collection. Thus, the management of online scholarly journals has been largely outsourced to publishers who have developed monopoly powers that allow them to increase subscription prices faster than the rate of inflation. Many librarians consider the open access movement the best response to increased subscription costs, but the current strategies employed to achieve open access also are undermined by collective action dilemmas. In conclusion, some alternative strategies are proposed.

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