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Nowadays, many academic journals have some impressively high subscription costs. E.g. Harvard's expenditures for library resources in 2012 was $16,391,638.

How did journal subscriptions evolve over time, and what factors accounted for it?

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To my understanding, the main factor is that in 1970-1980-th the Universities, learned societies, and other non-profit organizations gave up on the journal business. Most existing journals were taken over by big businesses, and competition from non-profit organizations vanished. This permitted the publishers to raise prices. The business became profitable (it never was very profitable while the journals were owned by universities and other non-profit organizations), and this triggered fight between the publishing corporations: they started buying each other. Now a lion share of the market is owned by two giants, Springer Business Media and Elsevier, which bought many smaller publishers, and they do with prices whatever they want.

Scientific community tries to resist (see for example "The Cost of Knowledge" on Wikipedia, which describes a partially successful boycott of Elsevier), but resistance is too week and not well organized. Meanwhile the university libraries are forced to cancel more and more subscriptions.

I was speaking on mathematics and physics above. In biology the situation is somewhat different, because the US government takes some protective measures. On the argument that "taxpayers pay for science and have right to have access to the results". So some government agencies like the NIH require that scientific results obtained with their support be freely available on Internet archives. This policies and their extension to other sciences are hotly debated in the Congress. Publishers lobby resists.

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