The term serials crisis has become a common shorthand to describe the chronic subscription cost increases of many serial publications such as scholarly journals. The prices of these institutional or library subscriptions have been rising much faster than the Consumer Price Index for several decades, while the funds available to the libraries have remained static or have declined in real terms. As a result, academic and research libraries have regularly canceled serial subscriptions to accommodate price increases of the remaining current subscriptions.
The subscription prices of scholarly journals have been increasing at a rate faster than the inflation rate for several decades. This chronic inflation is caused by several factors, discussed below.
Each journal title publishes unique research findings and as a result is a unique commodity that cannot be replaced in an academic library collection by another journal title, such as a less expensive journal on the same subject, as one could with commodities. The publisher thus has the ability to act as a monopolist. Scholarly journals vary greatly in quality as do the individual articles that they publish. The highest quality journals are often expected and demanded by scholars to be included in their institution's library collections, often with little regard or knowledge about the subscription costs. Traditional metrics for quality in scholarly journals include Impact Factor and Citation count as recorded by Journal Citation Reports. This leads to price inelasticity for these higher quality journals.
Another possible set of factors in this situation includes the increasing domination of scholarly communication by a small number of commercial publishers, whose journals are far more costly than those of most academic societies. However, the institutional subscription prices for journals published by some academic society publishers (see below) have also exhibited inflationary patterns similar to those seen among commercial publishers.
The earnings of the American Chemical Society (ACS), for example, is based, in large parts, on publications. In 1999, the income of the ACS was $349 million, where $250 million came from information services. According to a 2004 House of Commons report (by the Science and Technology Committee), the ACS is one of the driving forces of the STM (science, technology, medicine) serials crisis. According to the same report, the crisis started around 1990, when many universities and libraries complained about the dramatic inflation of STM subscription prices especially for the flagship JACS, which is exclusively sold as a bundle with all other ACS journals. The report further complains that
the no–cancellation clauses attached to their multi-year multi-journal deals with Elsevier and the American Chemical Society had led to uneven cancellation of titles to make the budget balance. The result is that the little-used Elsevier and ACS titles must remain in the portfolio while the more popular titles by other publishers are cancelled.
Every year the Library Journal publishes a summary of periodical pricing and inflation. "The rate of price increase is analyzed for more than 18,000 e-journal packages handled by EBSCO Information Services...For 2019, the average rate of increase over two years was 5.5%, up slightly from 5% in 2018." 
Growth in scholarly publishing
An additional problem is a dramatic increase in the volume of research literature and increasing specialization of that research, i.e. the creation of academic subfields. This includes a growth in the number of scholars and an increase in potential demand for these journals. At the same time, funds available to purchase journals are often decreasing in real terms. Libraries have seen their collection budgets decline in real terms compared to the United States Periodical Price Index. There are other library expenditures such as computers and networking equipment that have also had a negative impact on scholarly publishing. As a result of the increasing cost of journals, academic libraries have reduced their expenditures on other types of publications such as scholarly monographs.
Currency exchange rates can serve to increase the volatility of subscription prices throughout the world. For example, journal publishers in Europe often set their prices in euro, not United States dollars, so subscribers in the United States will experience varying prices due to exchange rate fluctuations. The converse is true for European institutions who subscribe to journals published in the United States. As the United States and Europe publish the vast majority of scholarly journals, libraries in other regions are subject to ever greater uncertainty. Although exchange rates can go down as well as up, long-term trends in currency values can lead to chronic price inflation experienced by particular libraries or collections.
Solutions, alternatives and developments
There is much discussion among case librarians and scholars about the crisis and how to address its consequences. Academic and research libraries are resorting to several tactics to contain costs, while maintaining access to the latest scholarly research for their users. These tactics include: increasingly borrowing journals from one another (see interlibrary loan) or purchasing single articles from commercial document suppliers instead of subscribing to whole journals. Additionally, academic and research libraries cancel subscriptions to the least used or least cost-effective journals. Another tactic has been converting from printed to electronic copies of journals, however, publishers sometimes charge more for the online edition of a journal, and price increases for online journals have followed the same inflationary pattern as have journals in paper format. Many individual libraries have joined co-operative consortia that negotiate license terms for journal subscriptions on behalf of their member institutions. Another tactic has been to encourage various methods of obtaining free access to journals.
A subscription to a bundle of several journals, at a discounted price, is known as a "big deal". It became prevalent in the 2000s as the amount of content offered by the Big Five grew beyond the perceived ability to pick specific titles to subscribe to. In a big deal, a library or consortium of libraries typically pays several million dollars per year to subscribe to hundreds or thousands of toll access journals.
In the 2010s, efforts increased to "unwrap" or "unbundle" the subscription, if not to cancel them altogether. Some "libraries are electing to critically appraise these big deals by assessing their collections, the value for money they are receiving from these packages, and how they might more strategically spend their finite collections resources." Services emerged for libraries to share information and reduce the information asymmetry in negotiations with the publishers, like the SPARC cancellation tracking and the Unpaywall Journals data analysis tool.
Developed in part as a response to the serials crisis, open access models have included new models of financing scholarly journals that may serve to reduce the monopoly power of scholarly journal publishers which is considered a contributing factor to the creation of the serials crisis. These include open access journals and open access repositories.
- Academic journal publishing reform
- List of public domain resources behind a paywall
- Library and information science
- Elsevier § Criticism and controversies
- United States v. Swartz
- Panitch, Judith M; Michalak, Sarah (January 2005), "The Serials Crisis", Hill Scholarly Communications Convocation (white paper), UNC-Chapel.
- Dingley, Brenda (2005), U.S. Periodical Prices (PDF), US: ALA.
- White, Sonya; Creaser, Claire, Trends in Scholarly Journal Prices 2000–2006 (PDF), UK: lboro.
- Sample, Ian (24 April 2012). "Harvard University says it can't afford journal publishers' prices". The Guardian.
- McAfee, "Summary", Journal (PDF), Caltech.
- "Returning Science to the Scientists" (PDF). Münchner Buchwissenschaft an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. 2009. Retrieved June 12, 2010.
- "Scientific Publications: Free for all?" (PDF). House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. 2009. Retrieved June 2, 2011.
- "Deal or No Deal: Periodicals Price Survey 2019". Library Journal. 2019. Retrieved September 11, 2019.
- Sherman, Scott. "University Presses Under Fire". The Nation (26 May 2014). Retrieved 6 March 2015.
- Edlin, Aaron S.; Rubinfeld, D. L. (2004). "Exclusion or efficient pricing? The "big deal" bundling of academic journals". Antitrust Law Journal. 72 (1): 119–157.