Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

ARL’s graphs is in trouble, again


Everyone who may read my blog is probably very familiar with ARL’s (infamous?) graphs showing such phenomena as the Monograph & Serials Costs in ARL Libraries, 1986-2011 and .  Searching that exact phrase Google returns nearly 4,000 results.  So it has made the rounds in the library and scholarly publishing world.  And, of course, it has come under some scrutiny.  This time, it is Elisabeth Jones, from the iSchool at the University of Washington, who takes exception to the data that underlies the graph in her guest editorial posting on Scholarly Kitchen, aptly titled, “What’s wrong with this picture“.

Dr. Jones does bring up a very good point about the validity of the data behind this graph, notably the samples that change every year.  Each year reported includes data from differing sets of libraries because the ARL libraries have not been very responsible responding fully to the survey.  Essentially, the median monograph expenditures is based on data from 100 libraries, while the median number of monographs purchased is based on data from 36 libraries.  Thus, the unit cost of serials cannot be accurately derived from the data when it comes from two different populations.  More importantly, the trends of these two variables should not be compared when they change over time.  It would be interesting to know, however, the effects of the set of libraries that do differ.  Would their inclusion make a notable difference in the outcome?

She mentions the changes to ARL measures, notably shifting from format-based to frequency-based (one-time versus continuing).  This would, indeed, make it more difficult to compare measures over time and it will be interesting to see how ARL handles this.  Traditionally, expenditures for monograph purchases were one-time, while those for journals were continuing.  Of course, libraries purchased other formats on either a one-time or continuing basis, so the formats may not be good proxies for frequency.  It would be nicer, however, if we could get more granular data, including both expenditures and units of all sorts of categories of resources and services.  It’s just hard to get libraries to cooperate and agree to definitions.

This problem, however, is not what I expected her to have exception with.  The graph plots a very noticeable rise in serials expenditures, as well as 3 lines lines monographs purchased, unit costs and expenditures.  What is not included in this particular graph is the number of journals for whose access the libraries’ purchased.  You may recall Paula Glantz’s criticism of LJ’s graph of changes to journal prices, which has been based on list prices of print subscriptions.  Essentially, if you look at the actual price per journal and even the price per article, the trends are very much in favor of libraries.  Reading this article, you’d think that the publishers were practically giving their content away.

But of course, they are not.  True, libraries have been providing access to a much larger set of journals than they ever did with print subscriptions.  But it is apparent that the “big deals” are becoming unsustainable.  In our library, the cost-per-use, -journal, and -article available for some of our packages are quite attractive.  It’s too bad that we can’t afford the cost of the packages anymore.  We are making decisions that will reduce the accessibility of many journals in many fields to our patrons.  I will be interested to learn how this will affect relative costs in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong – I do not believe that publishers are fully to blame for the economic situations libraries find themselves in as of late.  Libraries are being squeezed by both price increases (average annual increase in prices over the last five years for our individual journals was 4%, while for packages it was 6.7%) and reductions in funding (see this graph for the reductions in relative funding for academic libraries over time).  It will be interesting to see if shifting more of our expenditures to individual titles will reduce the overall cost inflation.

Hmmm, there are a lot of things that will be “interesting to see” over the next few years.

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2014 by in Academic Libraries, Collections, LIS Data, Publishing, Statistical Analysis.
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