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I'd like to understand scientific journals' pricing model.

For example, in the case of Nature, one single article bought as a unit costs $32.00. But a personal subscription is only $199.00 for 1 Year (51 issues, Print and Online). That is 6x digital articles cost slightly less than all articles in one year and 51 paper magazines.

What is the reason of the disparity between the article price and the yearly subscription? Wouldn't they obtain a better return rate if they priced the articles at a reasonable amount? (maybe $4-$5)

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    If you buy a single news magazine at a newstand, it's also more expensive than when you have a subscription.
    – ff524
    Mar 4 '16 at 22:11
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    @ff524: Yes, but in the case of Nature that's $10 (1/3 of a single digital article). It makes the whole even more puzzling to me. It looks like digital single articles are priced for not being bought. Mar 4 '16 at 22:14
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    "I don't want to enter into a debate. Therefore I will state an absolute position and post my statement on the internet." Mar 5 '16 at 7:44
  • The concepts of supply and demand is not relevant here. Go to economics.stackexchange Mar 5 '16 at 15:47
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On the principle a subscription is always better than individual sales from the journal's point of view because it's a fixed income on which they can count. It's also well known to increase sales that explain why you always get a discount when you subscribe to a service.

As for the seemingly large difference you mention, my guess is that individual subscriptions for scientific articles are rare, and thus not very interesting financially. People needing frequent access to the content of these journals typically access them via institutional subscriptions.

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    Not only it's a fixed income, but it's also in advance.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Mar 5 '16 at 19:10
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I don't have hard data, so I would have just posted this as a comment, but it was too long.

It would be interesting to know who (if anyone) actually pays these per-article prices and under what circumstances. I suspect that no individuals are willing to pay the per-article price out of pocket, so that price isn't actually aimed at them. Most likely the journal's goal is to pick up some per-article sales from institutions; people are often willing to spend their employer's money or their grant money on something that they'd consider exorbitantly expensive if it was their own money.

If so, then we should be comparing per-article prices with institutional subscription prices, not with individual subscription prices. Institutional subscriptions are much more expensive.

Note also that there is a huge glut of highly specialized, low-impact, low-quality journals out there. The driving factor behind the proliferation of these journals is that academics seeking tenure have an overwhelming incentive to publish. Publishers are going to institutions such as university libraries and saying, "Hey, don't you want a subscription to the Appalachian Journal of Holistic Particle Physics and Macrame?" If I was a library, I'd probably come back with, "No, I don't think we're likely to have a lot of researchers who need articles from the AJHPPM. If we ever did have someone who needed an article from that journal, they could just buy the individual article." The publishers don't like that answer, so they would like buying individual articles to be prohibitively expensive.

Of course Nature isn't in the same league as AJHPPM, but that just raises the question of why the per-article prices seem to be so uniform across publishers and journals. For example, nobody seems to be experimenting with discount pricing. I suspect that this is an example of price fixing.

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    It would be interesting to know who (if anyone) actually pays these per-article pricesYes, they do. A significant fraction of the Association for Computing Machinery's publication income is one-off article sales from their Digital Library.
    – JeffE
    Mar 5 '16 at 21:02
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    @JeffE: Interesting. So how about the "who" part?
    – user1482
    Mar 5 '16 at 22:22
  • I believe the best bet is to ask some of the major professional organizations, like ACM, IEEE, MAA, AMS if they'd care to share the overall breakdown (if even known).
    – vonbrand
    Mar 6 '16 at 1:04

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