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Monographic Purchasing Trends in Research Libraries: Did Electronic J…


Monographic Purchasing Trends in Research Libraries: 

I just finished reading the article by Elisabeth A. Jones and Paul N. Courant published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.  Because this is behind a paywall, I’m posting the link to their presentation put up on SlideShare in March.  I have two distinct feelings related to this article – excitement about method and the results, and disappointment in the lack of response in the library & scholarly publishing worlds.

First the background: librarians have been hearing (mostly from the sales people) that we are killing the academic publishing industry (read: university presses) because we’re spending way too much on serials, leaving precious little for much else.  Indeed, librarians may have been perpetuating that saga, telling the same story to the villainous scientific journal publishers.  Unfortunately, these same people have offered precious little data (specific and verifiable data) to support these claims.  Well, the authors’ wanted to test this assumption with the “best data available”.  Ideally, this would have come directly from the the publishers, but…of course, they cannot or will not oblige.

So they looked at the best of the rest – using a combination of three resources: publisher output data from the AAUP directory, library expenditures data from the ACRL statistics, and WorldCat holdings as a proxy for purchases.  Now, I know, I see a lot of rolling eyes out there – especially with WorldCat.  The authors’ saw this too.  But they addressed most of the concerns I had to my satisfaction.  Yes, the AAUP doesn’t include all publishers, but the complaints have come mostly from this group; No, the statistics reported to ACRL are inconsistent over time, but they are consistently inconsistent, which makes it more valid for reporting trends; and Yes, holdings reported in WorldCat do not necessarily represent purchases, particularly by year, librarians have a tendency to not remove records of withdrawn holdings to WC, which makes it more ideal than their own systems.

Next, the questions:

  • Have libraries actually been purchasing fewer university press titles since 1975?
  • If so, can this be tied to increases in serials expenditures?
  • Are these trends similar across all types of libraries?
  • Do UP’s fair worse than other presses?

Now, the authors’ answers:

  • No
  • No
  • No
  • and, No

OK, that is way oversimplifying this study, but mind you, I’m using the authors’ words here.  Well, in the slideshow, they are more equivocal in their first answer, with a “Yes, but only since 2000,”  and only slightly.  The more detailed analyses provided in the article clearly shows that the decline is large in the largest libraries in the last few years.  The problem, apparently, is in perception.  You see, output by the sampled presses “skyrocketed” nearly 300% over this time frame.  And, until the early aughts, libraries generally kept up, purchasing about the same percentage of the presses’ catalogs.  But then came the twin recessions of the early 2000’s and 2008.  The authors’ claim that it was economic realities, not pressure from journal prices that reduced the titles purchased.

Actually, here is where I have my only substantive criticism.  The second part of their first question asked about the temporal relationship between any decrease in purchases and “the serials crisis”.  This is not well defined – there has been a serials crisis for decades – what time frame did they use?  They should have overlaid their data with changes in serials expenditures over the same time frame for the same libraries.  This would have answered their question more to my satisfaction.

In addition to demonstrating that it is primarily the unrealistic output that is driving the UP’s downward, the authors provide support to the counter-claims that a) ARL does not represent all libraries, and b) UP’s actually have fared better, much better, than non-UP publishers.  And one other trend that I found interesting was the expansion of the difference in purchases between the different sized libraries – this reminded me of one other trend: the growing economic gap, between individuals and between nations.  I think that there is a “law” buried here that could be applied to the organization of the simplest of things to the expansion of the universe.  Wait…I think I’m digressing…

Now, I got a late start reading this article – it came out in early October and I’m only just now reading it.  After I finished reading my print-out (yes, print), I searched the Web expecting some hullabaloo among the publishing world (downplaying? criticizing? johnny-come-lately “I told you so”?) and librarians…especially librarians.  Crickets.  Is a month just not long enough?

Perhaps the silence could be blamed on it being behind a firewall (do you hear the sound of silence, UPs?).  But the authors have had their SlideShare posted since April.  The crickets are getting louder.

It’s not like the leaders in this debate would not be aware of this.  After all, Joseph Esposito’s “parable” headlines the article.  And it’s not like the method is obscure to the intended audience.  Indeed, Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Scholarly Resources & Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, discussed using something like the authors’ method (based in large part on measuring library purchases based on holdings reported in WorldCat) over the summer in The Scholarly Kitchen.

Well, I’m not sure how much my tiny megaphone will help to spread this idea, but I hope others with bigger and louder will examine it more closely and initiate a debate.  I’m very interested to hear responses, criticisms (valid, supported and constructive), and suggestions for furthering the study.  For my part, I would like to take up the authors’ challenging of finding more efficient methods of gathering and cleaning the data.

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3 comments on “Monographic Purchasing Trends in Research Libraries: Did Electronic J…

  1. waltcrawford
    November 13, 2014

    Could you clarify one point in that paywalled article? You say “ACRL” twice and “ARL” once–and they’re two very different things. I’m guessing you mean ARL.

  2. Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
    November 13, 2014

    The authors actually used data from *ACRL* statistics, and then compared purchasing trends of the largest of the sampled libraries with those of ARL. Their point, I think, was to demonstrate how ARL libraries do not represent all libraries, indeed most libraries.

    • waltcrawford
      November 13, 2014

      Thanks. Certainly true that ARL libraries aren’t representative of all (academic) libraries.

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