Many scientists are under the impression that the majority of interested readers for their work have subscription journal access. I find this unlikely as a very small percentage of the global population has subscription journal access. To help illustrate the suicidal impact subscription publishing has on one's research, it would be helpful to have some estimates of the percent of individuals denied access to subscription works.

While such an estimate comes with many caveats, does anyone know of statistics or resources that could help answer this question? For example, how many people are affiliated with organizations that purchase institutional access? Even if the metrics are for a single journal, that could be a helpful starting point.

Note: this question was originally posted to the OpenCon Community Discussion Listserv.

  • 1
    This a great question and one I want to get hard data on too. I've often wondered why librarians don't openly publish lists of journals (and the age-range of accessibility e.g. 1990<->2015) they do / don't have subscriptions for at each higher education institution. It would be really interesting and I don't think it would be difficult to do. This seems like something librarians could definitely be in a position to answer.
    – rmounce
    Aug 15, 2015 at 20:19
  • This could be a research paper in itself! I believe that most journals either publish or are willing to provide subscription statistics. After all, how do you prove that you are relevant if you do not demonstrate the reach of your publication? The hard part is collecting all of that information...
    – Olek Wojnar
    Aug 16, 2015 at 5:05
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    This argument seems to be based on an independence fallacy. "The majority of interested readers have access" is by no means inconsistent with "a very small percentage of the global population has access", since in many cases, interested readers are far more likely to be researchers affiliated with universities - they're not randomly sampled from the world population. Put more bluntly, why should I care about billions of people without access, if none of them actually want to read my paper? Aug 21, 2015 at 21:50
  • @rmounce: That information can usually be found in the library's public catalog, though maybe not all in one convenient place. Aug 21, 2015 at 22:14
  • @NateEldredge, denying outsiders access to the primary inputs of science ensures they stay uninterested. I'm interested in the percent of the global population that is deprived of the opportunity to do science because of article unavailability. Aug 24, 2015 at 22:49

1 Answer 1


Perfect question! If anyone can provide such stats this would be amazing. :)

I would make the question a bit more specific. Let's assume I'm an author who wants to publish an article and have to choose between a particular toll-access journal and an Open Access one. We want to know what's the potential audience of both journals, measured by the number of scholars who can access the article, without differentiating between disciplines (for simplicity) and without considering non-scholars (they're hard to measure). The main question is how these two numbers relate to each other: the toll-access audience is 90%? 50%? 5%? ... of the OA audience? I suspect the value is closer to 5-10% for most journals, because there are something like 30,000 journals out there and most of them are not very presitigious and subscribed only by a fraction of institutions, esp. in developing countries. Being able to quote such a percentage value would make a powerful argument for OA.

So, one half of the answer is simple: potential audience for any OA journal is in the range of 7-9 million - that's an estimated global number of researchers, according to the STM Report 2015.

The other part of the question is more difficult: for a particular journal, say, Nature, what's the number of scholars who can access it through institutional subscriptions, and what fraction of 7-9M it is? Or, how many institutions subscribe to a given journal? -- I don't know the answers, but I think it should be possible to come up with some estimates by analysing subscription lists of different institutions and coupling these data with counts of researchers at each institution - if not globally than at least for a particular country. For US institutions SPARC may have some data, I guess?

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    This doesn't answer the question.
    – ff524
    Aug 21, 2015 at 21:06
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    True, but I was asked by the author of the question to put it here. This answer first was sent to an OA mailing list.
    – mwojnars
    Aug 23, 2015 at 20:32

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