What determines the value of academic publications?

And can librarians, scholars and publishers agree about it?

Image courtesy of flickr user 401K, 401kcalculator.org

By value, I don’t just mean the impact factor and other metrics, or even the general prestige of a journal as measured by gut feeling. I mean the value of a publication (a single article, an entire journal, every journal a publisher publishes) in fiscal terms. Dollars and cents. Moolah. Benjamins.

Perhaps we can say that a more highly ranked journal (impact factor, eigenfactor, etc.) might be worth more in dollars. Some publishers would certainly like this to be true. Higher quality equals higher cost. After all, you want the $100 bottle of wine to taste better than the $5 bottle of wine. But this doesn’t seem to be how it works in reality, at least in some disciplines. Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006) did a study of ecology journals, and examined cost versus impact factor.  In general, they found that there was no correlation between the two.  [Yes, yes, I know. Impact factor is just one poor way of measuring value.]

Perhaps value has something to do with reliability? One way to look at reliability is to examine retractions. Fang and Casadevall (2011) have shown that typically, high impact journals have more per-article retractions because they are at the cutting edge of research (also see this Retraction Watch post). Because they want to get things out fast, mistakes are sometimes made. Nature, Cell and Science all have a relatively high Retraction Index (see Fang and Casadevall, 2011). But does this make these journals any less valuable overall?

With the number of open access options increases, publishers (especially for profit publishers and academic societies that act like for profit publishers) make the argument that their editing, copy editing and page preparation services add significant value to their publications.  How much should should these services add to the total value of the publication?  [Hint: not as much as the publisher would like.]

Then again, perhaps the value of a publication has less to do with the content and more to do with the audience. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine is probably more useful and valuable to a medical school than it is to my small liberal arts college, and more valuable to me than to a similarly sized school without a biology program.

When publishers assign a value to their publications, they typically take into account the size of the school or the types of degrees they award. Larger schools often pay more money for access to the same resources. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always take into account the details of who those folks are. Two schools with 5000 students will pay the same amount for a resource in chemistry, say, even though one school has 100 chemistry majors each year and the other has 10.

As journal costs keep rising, institutions must continuously evaluate value – does this journal provide enough value to my institution to justify the costs?

No matter how good the $100 bottle of wine is, I’ll need to keep drinking the $5 stuff. Or maybe the $10 stuff for Christmas.


Bergstrom, C. T., & Bergstrom, T. (2006). The economics of ecology journals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(9), 488–495. Retrieved from http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/1540-9295(2006)4[488:TEOEJ]2.0.CO;2

Fang, F. C., & Casadevall, A. (2011). Retracted science and the retraction index. Infection and immunity, 79(10), 3855-9. doi:10.1128/IAI.05661-11