Research articles are often priced at 20-40 USD. I know that typically a researcher's institution subscribes to myriads of journals, and that some research articles are accessible online for free either legally or illegally, but I am curious to know some numbers that would help quantify how many / often individuals buy research articles, and how much money journals make from this source of income.

I am not looking for guesses or opinions, but actual numbers.

  • 4
    Companies that perform research usually do not subscribe but purchase individual articles. this is of course not individuals doing private purchases but will in some fields make up a large portion of the single article sales. Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 17:31
  • 19
    I bought a research article when I was a postdoc. I was collaborating (via email) with a Spanish mathematician, and we found a paper that from its title sounded like it might overlap with our work. I was sufficiently worried that at the time, $25 was worth some peace of mind. This is a sad story: not about the article itself (there was little content in it of any kind) but that I could be that young and desperate. Nowadays I would on principle spend more than $25 of my time getting the article freely. But what you do even once probably happens a non-negligible percentage of the time... Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:02
  • 6
    I bought one obscure paper. When refereeing a paper for a conference that had a very tight and strict deadline, that obscure paper turned out to be absolutely necessary, and I didn't have enough time left and couldn't wait until my university's library could loan it from another library. Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 18:23
  • 5
    I would like to add to this a request for the results to be broken down by discipline, if possible. I'm sure the data would be dramatically different between, for example, mathematics and medicine. Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 19:17
  • 11
    I work in an R&D department as an engineer. I have a personal IEEE digital library account (US$40/month, 25 articles) which serves most of my needs. However, I still find that I buy about 2-3 articles per month. Note that when you shell out real physical cash for a article, you are far more selective about what you read. That's an enormous change from when I was in academia.
    – Damien
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 3:56

4 Answers 4


I tried digging through the 2013 annual report of Elsevier. Under "Revenue" (page 111) they list both "subscriptions" and "transactional" - but the latter include not only reprints, but also books etc.

enter image description here

As you can see, even if we lump books and reprints together, it is still less than subscriptions.

To get a more complete answer you may have to ask them directly.

  • 2
    This is great (+1). However, to allow for speculation, does Elsevier have a large book segment (a la Springer) or do they fully concentrate on research material?
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 9:55
  • 6
    @xLeitix from elsevier.com/about/at-a-glance "almost 2200 journals and over 25,000 book titles". I would call that a large book segment.
    – Floris
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 13:36

While I can't give actual firm numbers, I know that two (non-academic) consumers of academic articles are law firms and pharmaceutical/life science companies. One of my former classmates worked as a research assistant for a law firm that handles biotech and patent cases, and I recall having a conversation with him where he said they easily spend $20-30,000/year on articles, with the exact amount depending on the cases they see and how much background information they need. These costs are wrapped up in the general legal fees charged. From my own experience, I worked briefly for a life science startup, and we would purchase around $600-1,000 in articles a year (although we tried obtaining articles through academic collaborations as much as possible).

  • 2
    Some University Libraries will also buy/rent individual articles for their faculty and students when they do not think a subscription is worth the money. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 15:28

Speaking as a librarian, very rarely - only if it's urgent and can't be obtained in a useful way through ILL. The cost of journal article purchase is usually three or four times an ILL fee.

More generally...

I ran some numbers on this for JSTOR in 2011, based on their public filings - it's hard to be sure, but the answers were "very little". In 2008, 0.35% of their income came from pay-per-view, and based on the quoted average, this came to something like seven or eight thousand articles/year.

It later transpired that themselves suggested around twenty thousand a year, but the numbers for this didn't quite add up, as the per-view price would be substantially lower than expected, so either a lot of material was somehow discounted or only the cheapest articles were being purchased. However we sliced the numbers, the easy answer was "not enough to really be significant". JSTOR have, to their credit, substantially widened public access since then, so these numbers will probably have dropped further.


An order of magnitude estimate for the revenue a publisher might get from these direct purchases is "several thousand dollars per month". For a publisher as large as Elsevier it might reach the low six figures per month. Given that Elsevier's revenue is in the billions, this is literally a rounding error.

Source: I used to work in academic publishing.

  • This begs the question of "Why do they bother?". Presumably it must still be worth the costs of offering the service.
    – Flyto
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 9:11
  • @Flyto I didn't work in the e-publishing department but I suppose that once you put the articles online (which you have to do anyway), it's very easy to offer it for sale as well. Unlike print copies, selling an electronic copy of the article barely costs anything, so why not.
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 9:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .