June 9, 2006 4:00PM

Journal of Inflation

It’s not the highest profile issue, but every once in a while one hears rumblings from the Ivory Tower about the exorbitant cost of academic journals.

There are, it seems, roughly a billion of these journals, and each one deals with its own microscopically narrow subject, from the Journal of Contaminant Hydrology to Husserl Studies.

According to an article in today’s Contra Costa Times, the University of California system alone spends tens of millions of dollars on such journals every year, and each year colleges get a little grumpier about the journals’ rising prices.

To combat subscription price inflation, colleges and universities are pushing for journals to switch from traditional paper to less expensive electronic formats, which is all well and good as far as it goes. It won’t, though, stop inflation in the long run; just as I wrote about tuition yesterday, journal prices skyrocket because publishers know that someone will pay for them. And who would that “someone” be? Taxpayers!

Just look at the inflation in taxpayer support for higher education over roughly the last decade, and it is abundantly clear who’s paying the bills. According to the College Board, the total amount of inflation-adjusted student aid provided through state and federal programs doubled between the 1994-95 academic year and the 2004-05 academic year, rising from $48.0 billion to $96.4 billion. In addition, the latest figures from the Digest of Education Statistics, when adjusted for inflation, show that total federal, state, and local appropriations to public colleges and universities rose from roughly $54.5 billion in 1995-96 to $69.1 billion in 2000-01, a 26 percent jump.

After seeing those figures, one doesn’t need to read an obscure publication about economics to understand why academic journals cost so much.