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How We Pay for Publishing by Kevin S. Hawkins | Against The Grain


How We Pay for Publishing by Kevin S. Hawkins (Director of Library Publishing, University of North Texas Libraries) | Against The Grain.

Key point in this article (emphasis added):

While the problem has been created by commercial publishers skimming the cream of academic publications and then charging handsomely for access to these prestige brands, it has been difficult to effect change in the system because scholars are the consumers of the content but only rarely the purchasers of it; as with health care and prescription drugs, the true costs of market consolidation and intellectual property protection are not borne by the consumers of the services and products.

…and later,

There is increasing acceptance that a university press is a mission-driven operation that cannot be expected to balance its books at the end of each fiscal year…

This article leads me to wonder, yet again, about the nature of the relationship of libraries and providers of content.  Specifically, what price are libraries willing to pay for this content?  While this could be answered by looking at what libraries have been paying, I’m not sure that answer would be valid.  For one thing, libraries have not always been fully-informed customers.  Furthermore, we have not always considered alternatives to the content.

The economics of librarianship is nearly as complex as that of the health care industry.  Are there lessons we can learn?

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2 comments on “How We Pay for Publishing by Kevin S. Hawkins | Against The Grain

  1. Kevin Hawkins
    March 1, 2015

    Different libraries, like different individual customers, are willing to pay different amounts for the same good. While sellers of tangible goods usually have trouble applying differential pricing, publishers have long done this, whether by selling the same title with different bindings (with the cheaper one likely available only after a delay), by charging different rates for institutional and individual subscribers, or by charging institutions based on Carnegie Classification, enrollment, or other proxy for wealth. But the ultimate way to get customers to pay up to what they are willing is to haggle till a price is reached. Indeed, this is essentially what happens between libraries and publishers negotiating subscription contracts.

    What a given library is willing to pay varies over time, depending on who’s negotiating for the library and publisher, which disciplines are getting the most attention at the university, and which researchers at the institution are clamoring the loudest. Perhaps the greatest factor is the size of the budget in a given year. Fluctuations in all of these things affect the what an institution is willing to pay.

    Still, I think that looking at what libraries have been paying will get you close to your answer. What they are willing to pay is equal to this or somewhat above it. But how much more? I would look for cases of libraries having dropped individual subscriptions or content bundles (“big deals”) to see how much they were paying just before dropping the access. Then, in the case of an individual subscription, find out what the new price was; the library was willing to pay something in between. For bundles this is harder because even if you can find out what the library used to pay (see Bergstrom et al.), you will probably not be able to find out what offer the library turned down. Though, if it was recent, you could ask a colleague at that institution before they forget the exact figure!

  2. Karen R. Harker, MLS, MPH
    March 1, 2015

    What a stimulating and insightful discussion! I’m still learning basic economic principles, differential pricing being one of them. Another is the problem of the moral hazard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_hazard).

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