Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

The Scholarly Communication Debate…in my head

Since I returned to librarianship, and particularly since I’ve entered the realm of collection development, I’ve realized the importance of understanding the economics of publishing.  I’ve seen first hand the dual effects of reduced funding and increased prices for resources, particularly journals.  And I’ve watched this problem grow from the mid-1990’s through two recessions and into the mess we are in today.  There are many reasons, different parties to blame and new solutions being tried and debated.  I try to see all sides of these issues, so I end up having many debates in my own head.  I thought I’d try to share them with you…maybe we can work something out.

One debate is regarding the role of commercial publishers in scholarly communication.  Now, I know some non-profit scholarly organizations behave just like forprofit companies, but for now, the focus is on the publishers which are clearly attempting to profit from the service they provide.  In this corner, you have entities such as Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, et al., which have a long tradition of providing services necessary to produce collections of reputable scholarly material, for a fee.  In the other corner, you have individuals from libraries, governments, higher education institutions, and other areas who have grown increasingly resentful of having to pay this fee.  Can these two sides agree on anything?  Well, it’s my head, so I think they’ve got a chance.

First, let’s start with some assumptions, the changing of which is not within the purview of this debate:

  1. The conditionally-free market economy is the most successful model to date.  True, there are problems, some of which I’ll note later, but it has resulted in higher standards of living than any other method humans have tried.  The “conditionally” part refers to constraints that limit the ill effects of capitalism that have been detailed from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman (in his opposition to the Copyright Term Extension Act).
  2. Unrestricted communication is a key component of a free and prosperous society, and libraries have a long tradition in facilitating the conversations associated with learning.  This facilitation necessarily involves working within the for-profit and non-profit scholarly communication markets to provide the necessary documents.

One of the graduate library assistants who work for me showed me this article from Ted Bergstrom, the economist from UC Santa Barbara who has been contributing to this conversation.  Like others have, he points out that the library-publisher relationship is not your typical free market relationship – libraries are not the ultimate consumers of the publishers’ products.  Rather, we are intermediaries.  I wondered if we are more akin to retailers.  While libraries may not make a profit on each usage, we measure our success in part based on uses (circulations, downloads, etc.).  So we have a motive to select the products that will “sell” or be used.  And it’s more than just an emotional motive – librarians have seen how low usage can lead to lower funding.

So here is the first debate in my head:

  • Librarian:  Because commercial publishers have profit as the primary motive, they cannot be trusted to deliver the highest quality product at a reasonable price.  The publishers have continued to raise their prices greater than inflation, dividing the markets and creating ever more journals to be purchased.  Then they tempt us with these packages at discount rates, Big Deals, that lock us in at annual rate increase below their “regular” 8-10% but still well above that of inflation.  Librarians were dazzelled by the prospect of providing access to all of a publisher’s journals, many of which are not applicable to their patrons, but still…now we offer access to fifty thousand journals!  Now, our patrons are “addicted” to the free access to these resources, even those not really relevant, but still interesting.  How can we think about dropping Elsever?  Or ACS?  But we are being squeezed by lower funding and higher prices.  The only solution is Open Access, where journals provide their content free to readers.  After all, you can get high quality peer review and editorial services from volunteers in the field.
  • Commercial Publisher: There is nothing wrong with making a buck in this country.  After all, we do provide an invaluable service.  We actively seek contributions, we manage the peer review process, our editors make selectivity decisions that maintain our high standards.  There is value in what we do, and that value is reflected by our prices.  If the researchers thought the quality of the work was poor, they would no longer request these journals or seek publication in them.  Gold Open Access is not sustainable, doesn’t save the libraries or academic institutions any money in the long run, and can lead to specious journals-for-hire.
  • Economist: The library-as-purchasing-agent model is unsustainable.  After all, the ultimate customers of the publishers’ services are not the libraries, but their patrons.  But the patrons do not pay for the services, so they cannot effectively express what they think the value of the journals are.  This situation has been compared with that of health care insurance.  When patients are not aware of the costs of the services and do not contribute a non-trivial amount, then they tend to use more and more of these services. Libraries are the insurance providers – at the mercy of the health care providers.  Publishers, however, are pricing themselves out of the library market and may not be able to sustain themselves on other revenue streams.
  • Researcher: I need unfettered access to research results in my highly-specialized field.  This is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for the benefit of humanity, not for personal gain.  After all, if I was doing this for personal gain, I’d be in the corporate world.  I also need avenues for publishing so that I may advance and so my students can have a future in this career.  Finally, I can’t afford the author fees of Gold Open Access, and I should have to pay to have my work published.

OK, I have enough voices in my head…let’s try to work this out.  I do believe that the market economy, where goods & services are sold based on their perceived value, can work.  I also believe that commercial publishers do provide a service that had served the public good well for about a hundred or two hundred years.  I also believe that librarians and libraries as institutions also provide a service beyond that of merely purchasing agents.  We ensure that resources efficiently and effectively serve the needs of the entire department and the entire university.  That is why few libraries have faculty making collection development decisions themselves.

So here is what I think might work:

  • Librarians use their research to demonstrate how greater investment in library resources and services can lead to higher student and faculty outcomes.  This leads to a modest increase in funding.
  • Librarians also use data on usage and value on their collection and make more informed collection development decisions, dropping Big Deals.  These decisions should be made with faculty input who have been informed of the costs and who can provide their input into the value of the resources.  Resources from a greater variety of publishers and providers, including OA, smaller publishers and scholarly organizations, should be considered as alternatives.
  • This should lead to greater competition among the publishers, which should lead to lower prices, or their departure from the market.
  • Green Open Access continues as an alternative venue of scholarly communication for subjects which do not have the market to survive in the more competitive market.  However, I suggest that what is provided in the institutional repositories is not expanded to include the final article.  The published article should be considered the definitive record, and researchers should use the OA version as a preliminary source to guide their research.  Funders of research, including academic institutions, should also continue mandating data be made publicly accessible.
  • Other forms of OA may also continue as alternative forms that support differing markets.  However, there should be constraints, market-based or through regulation by the field or the government, to ensure against fraud (“predatory” and “journals-for-hire”).  This could take the form of watchdog groups with participants from all stakeholder groups, including libraries.

Notice that I put librarians’ actions first and foremost on this list.  This is because I think it is up to librarians to take the first step.  That includes getting the faculty more involved in the decision-making (but not dominating it), and negotiating harder with publishers.  As Bergstrom mentioned, this means being prepared to walk away.  But the playing field must be level.  A free market requires all parties to be well-informed – This means no more nondisclosure clauses and access to accurate usage data.  Recall from this graph that shows the disparity between list prices of journals and what libraries actually spent – this reveals the communication gap.  As a counter to that graph, check out Figure 3 in this article (below).

Serials expenditures percentage increase since 1986


Well, that’s how it plays out in my head.  Is this realistic?  Did I get the arguments wrong?  I’m sure there are a myriad of other issues to consider.  But is the problem solvable?


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This entry was posted on January 14, 2014 by in Collections, Open Access, Publishing, Scholarly Communication.

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