8.3 Scholarly Journals Examined from a Systems Perspective
In the late 1970s King Research performed a series of studies for the National Science Foundation on scientific and technical information communication, with particular emphasis on scientific scholarly journals.  As part of these studies we identified and characterized all the principal functions performed in the journal system, participants who performed the functions, and hundreds of detailed activities necessary to perform the many functions. For each activity we established quantities of output and amount of resources required (with dollar amounts placed on the resources). We traced the flow of messages transmitted among participants, which, in 1978, numbered in the billions. We also examined all of the activities in terms of the introduction of evolving technologies to assess when comprehensive electronic journals were likely to become commonplace.
As a result of our 1978 systems study we indicated that:
Recent technological advances, which were developed largely independently of the scientific and technical communication, provide all the components of a comprehensive electronic journal system. Such a system would provide enormous flexibility, particularly because individual articles can be distributed in the most economically advantageous manner. Much-read articles may still be distributed in paper form, and infrequently read articles can be requested and quickly received by telecommunication when they are needed (King et al., 1981).
We went on to say that:
This comprehensive electronic journal system is highly desirable and currently achievable. It is believed that within the next twenty years, a majority of articles will be handled by at least some electronic processes throughout but not all articles will be incorporated into a comprehensive electronic journal system.
At that time (1978), some communications researchers scoffed at this "pessimistic" view of when electronic journals would become widespread, and some at NSF were disappointed because other studies forecast much quicker implementation of electronic journals.
One aspect of the systems analysis done at the time was to sum the resource costs applied to all the activities identified in order to establish an overall journal system cost in the U.S. In 1975 we estimated the total amount of resources expended that year on scientific journals to be $5.05 billion (or about $15.6 billion in 1998 dollars, considering increases in resource costs). A reasonable estimate of the corresponding total system cost in 1998 is $45 billion.  This systems approach ignores the amount of money exchanged between participants, such as the price paid by scientists and libraries for subscriptions purchased, the price paid for online bibliographic searches, fees paid for document delivery services, and so on. Including such transfer payments would only duplicate the costs of system resources applied by publishers, online vendors, and document delivery services. Thus, the additional cost to the U.S. economy (or scientific community) for processing and using scientific journals was another $5.05 billion in 1975 (or $15.6 billion in 1998 dollars) and $45 billion in 1998. The $15.6 billion (1998 dollars) comes to about $7,000 per scientist or about $69 per article reading. In 1998 we estimated the comparable system cost to be about $7,100 per scientist or $59 per reading.
The 1998 total system cost per scientist ($7,100 per scientist) is sub-divided as follows: authors ($640), publishers ($500), libraries and other intermediaries ($420), and readers ($5,540). Thus, scientists' time spent with writing and reading dominates the total system costs (i.e., 87% of the total costs). The costs per scientist of authorship, publishing, and libraries and other intermediaries have all decreased over time, but readers' cost per scientist has increased. The reader increase in cost per scientist is attributable to an increase in their time spent acquiring and reading articles. The number of personal subscriptions of scientists has decreased by over one-half, with nearly all prior reading from personal subscriptions replaced by reading from library-provided journals. Thus, scientists spend more time obtaining articles, and they also appear to spend more time reading an article (due perhaps to an increase in size of articles as shown later). The decrease in cost per reading is due to relative decreases in library and publishing resources expended.
The relative resource expenditures of libraries (and other intermediary services) are down, whether calculated by cost per scientist or cost per reading. The library cost per scientist is down because of relative reduction in library budgets, but also because of efficiencies due in part to library automation, resource sharing (King and Xu, 2003), and replacement of print journals by electronic versions (see Section 8.9). The library cost per reading is down due in large part to the increase in the amount of reading from library-provided journals resulting from the shift from personal subscriptions to library-provided articles. For example, from 1977 to the current era, the number of personal subscriptions declined from 5.8 to 2.4 and number of readings from library collections increased from 15 to 66 readings per scientist.
The relative cost of publishing has apparently also decreased. For example, the cost per page published is down, due in part to use of technologies, increased efficiencies, and increased sizes of journals. The cost per scientist is down, due in part to the factors mentioned above, but also to the fact that there is an average of over three fewer subscriptions circulated per scientist. The publishing cost per reading is also down due, in addition to the factors above, to a greater amount of reading. This discussion of the systems perspective causes us to ask this question: Why have average prices risen by a factor of nearly nine over a period of time during which the relative cost of publishing has actually decreased?