The most famous of these providers is Elsevier. It is a behemoth. Every year it publishes 250,000 articles in 2,000 journals. Its 2012 revenues reached $2.7 billion. Its profits of over $1 billion account for 45% of the Reed Elsevier Group – its parent company which is the 495th largest company in the world in terms of market capitalization.
Companies like Elsevier developed in the 1960s and 1970s. They bought academic journals from the non-profits and academic societies that ran them, successfully betting that they could raise prices without losing customers. Today just three publishers, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, account for roughly 42% of all articles published in the $19 billion plus academic publishing market for science, technology, engineering, and medical topics. University libraries account for 80% of their customers. Since every article is published in only one journal and researchers ideally want access to every article in their field, libraries bought subscriptions no matter the price. From 1984 to 2002, for example, the price of science journals increased nearly 600%. One estimate puts Elsevier’s prices at 642% higher than industry-wide averages.