65.1 ASSESSMENT OF FISC REPORT
Ann Okerson, Association of Research Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are selections from a memo responding to the FISC (Foundation for International Scientific Publications) report, written as background for committee members and library directors within the Association of Research Libraries. When we first saw parts of the report and then the PRQ article, we sought an opinion on the work from an outside academic professional with not only strong statistical qualifications and expertise but also with a firm and up-to-date understanding of scholarly communications and publishing matters -- as well as the professional literature related to them.
The document that follows was authored by Sarah Pritchard, Director of Libraries at Smith College. She was formerly Associate Executive Director at ARL and the Senior Program Officer for Statistics. The memorandum was written after her departure from ARL; at the time of its writing she was not under contractual arrangement with the ARL. At our request, Ms. Pritchard prepared the commentary upon seeing a draft of the FISC report in October. The memo, which does not reflect extensive research, was drafted for internal purposes for ARL committees. It does not represent Smith College.
Given the serious concerns that research libraries and librarians have with the FISC work, we offer this internal/committee document for wider distribution. We hope that it underscores some of the questions that need to be pondered by those reading the FISC work. It is reproduced with Ms. Pritchard's consent.
MEMORANDUM RE: "The Cost-Effectiveness of Science Journals" (Report of the Advisory Panel for Scientific Publications, Foundation for International Scientific Publications (FISC) )
FROM: Sarah M. Pritchard, Director of Libraries, Smith College, email@example.com
This report is an unreliable hodge-podge of out-of-date library models, unsupported opinion and assertions, and misleading and inconsistent statistical data. Nowhere is it clear how the report was prepared or what kind of systematic research, if any, was conducted; throughout, it shows a poor understanding of library issues and practice.
The FISC report essentially blames libraries for their own economic problems, suggests that they are out-of-date and out-of-touch, and excludes any analysis of the closely interrelated roles of publishers and new distribution mechanisms in the changing patterns of scientific communication. It begins by describing trends in the growth of science journal prices based on increasing numbers of users, pages, and titles, and on technological shifts in the mechanisms of production. These are each complex trends that have been the subject of numerous individual studies, none of which is cited by FISC. It is difficult to base any valid conclusion on this vast over-generalization, which applies to users and journals far beyond just those within the academic library purview. The report asserts that academic library budgets have not kept pace with this "normal" growth in the price of science journals. What is not mentioned is that this growth has far exceeded the national inflation rate and rise in the Consumer Price Index over the last several years, and library budgets have in fact more than kept pace with the CPI.
The report tries to demonstrate the value of traditional paper-based libraries to scientific research, introducing a single irrelevant and ungeneralizable personal anecdote about a mathematician. There is no analysis of the very different model of scholarly publication in mathematics as opposed to the experimental sciences. Nor is it admitted that in today's networked environment, the scientist with a modem has worldwide access to textual and numeric data, a situation that in many cases replaces much if not all traditional library use. Conventional printed journals, on which so much of the FISC critique is based, are only part of the total resource base, therefore, continued growth and maintenance of large onsite paper collections is not necessarily the only measure of research library effectiveness.
In several places in the report, the assumption seems to be that university libraries comprise the majority of purchasers of science journals and that they are solely responsible for provoking various price responses from publishers. The exact subscriber mix of both commerical and scholarly society publications would be interesting data to cite, but such information is not evident here, and indeed is rather elusive. It is quite possible that the comparatively weaker purchasing position of academic libraries (as opposed to, for example, corporate research facilities or individual scientists) is exactly why their consumer decisions have had little effect on bringing prices down. Given the completely undocumented assertions by FISC that 90% of research and development occurs off-campus, and the extended argument that academic libraries need to -- but are not -- serving these clients, it would seem that the lack of information about exact subscription patterns renders this line of reasoning facetious.
The report goes on to suggest that libraries are somehow out of touch with scientific researchers. That library managers are isolated from publishers and scientists is not only unsupported by any documentation, it is patently untrue even to the most casual observer of the professional staff in a major academic library. There is constant interaction of the academic library community with scholars, writers, publishers, distributors and technology enterprises at local, regional, national and international meetings and conferences. Furthermore, libraries and librarians are often themselves authors, editors and publishers. The FISC criticism of the "limitations of laypeople" is misleading and inaccurate, as librarians usually rely on extremely close collaboration with faculty and long years of experience studying the "meta-structure" of the field in which they are selecting materials. FISC uses one or two small studies done for pragmatic and specific reasons as examples of the purported lack of understanding of users; this not only indirectly denies the validity of such locally-defined studies for planning services, it ignores a much larger body of more thorough and methodologically sound research on academic and research library users across the spectrum of disciplines and institutions.
Librarians have contributed to an immense literature on the information needs of scientists and other researchers, little of which is cited here (except the King study). Not even a nod is given by FISC to such significant analyses as those by the American Council of Learned Societies or Fritz Machlup, to name only two that come immediately to mind. The section of the FISC report that purports to discuss this issue seems vague and disconnected, and it is not clear how this supports the underlying purposes of the study. A related argument seems to be that individual academic libraries are responsible for the needs of any researcher, whether or not part of that campus' community. The statement that off-campus research needs are "diluted" by the focus on campus users brings up serious policy questions for resource sharing, public/private enterprise, cross-subsidies and nation-wide information policies that are not even hinted at.
Perhaps some of the most debatable aspects of the FISC report arise from its reliance on certain library statistics and models that are not at all universal and are highly inconsistent to interpret. The statement is made that there has been a significant decline in library funding -- but relative to what absolute norm? Total higher education and R&D expenditures? These broad expenditure figures, drawn for the most part from the US Department of Education, are very unrealiable, especially when aggregated as they are over a twenty-year period for all types of post-secondary institutions.
The accounting definitions for calculating the component parts of these "education and general" expenditures vary greatly from institution to institution, and even over time within a single institution. The definitions as used by campus business officers differ in significant ways from those used by library managers, so that "library expenditures" as calculated from "finance" forms may look quite different from those compiled by the library profession. The FISC report indiscriminately intermingles data from both sources. In addition, in the last two decades, universities have had to fund several completely new areas of educational support such as computer centers, so that the mix of elements within the E&G total is simply not the same in 1970 and 1990 -- one is comparing percentages of substantially different wholes. The same can be said for longitudinal use of R&D data.
One of the main reasons the data cited by FISC are not routinely published by their compiler, the Association of Research Libraries, is this very unreliability. Comparisons can only be made among the most carefully defined and selected peer groups, and even then are of questionable usefulness for making these kinds of inferences about national patterns. The FISC report makes wild assertions and irrelevant ad hominem attacks about the situation at specific universities without providing any description of the particular nature of research and curricular support at those institutions. It is ironic that the FISC report draws these misleading national and local conclusions when elsewhere it stresses the near-impossibility of making meaningful price comparisons across journals.
The unquestioned assertion that library collections are supposed to double every fifteen years is laughably out-of-date, pre-dates immense technological advances, and is not at all current in the library profession today. It gives further support to the conclusion that the author of the FISC report did not conduct any truly substantive or expert research in the field. The notion that sheer size in volume numbers equals excellence is also routinely denied by both library researchers and practitioners, and the references in the FISC report are to a very small number of studies almost 30 years old. Libraries do continue to collect volume-based statistics, but even the commonly misquoted "rankings" of university libraries are based on a series of interrelated factors including total expenditures and staff size, elements that may more readily reflect changes in library services as a result of automation and other new approaches to meeting user needs.
FISC repeatedly implies that academic libraries and their parent institutions are poorly managed, yet nowhere is there research cited to support this, and the make-up of the FISC panel does not appear to include any senior administrators from higher education. One particularly reckless and again irrelevant analogy is made to the municipal fiscal crisis in New York City; it is hard to find in this any genuine analysis of higher education management or even municipal finance. Cancellations of journals are usually made as part of a planned and strategic approach to developing a mix of information services and resources tailored to the needs of the institution. Such decisions may be for reasons other than the sheer increase in price or a general budget cut; this analysis oversimplifies the management choices in planning collection development and maintenance, in assessing alternate forms of access to information, and in running an efficient library.
The focus of the FISC report on the lack of growth in the materials budgets ignores spending on interlibrary-loan, document delivery, many forms of electronic and networked access, and other services that are generally budgeted not as materials purchases but as contractual or "operating" expenditures. The growth of interlibrary loan is even somehow made out to be a dangerous, sloppy, and unthinking approach. The assertion of poor management or inadequate materials thus is based on a single traditional library function, ignoring the vast strides academic libraries have made in diversifying and modernizing operations, services and acquisitions of information, planning and assessing the costs and benefits of alternative ways to support the information needs of the institution.
The group of recommendations at the end of the report are all ideas that many would support, but seem little connected to the body of the report, have nothing to do with journal prices and do not speak at all to the publisher role. The recommendations that science publications be evaluated by their immediate users, and that price indexes be segmented by disciplines, are superfluous since this has in fact been done for some time. However, taken to the extreme suggested here, virtually no comparison would ever be possible by anyone except a single user of a single journal. Despite the criticisms of librarians and higher education administrators, the FISC report offers few substantive recommendations pertaining to the role of scholarly editors and authors in the process. This has been the focus of a great deal of recent writing, for example on intellectual property, on the growth of electronic journals and the potential for new forms of negotiating copyright via contracts, institutional arrangements, consortia and the like. There is much highly creative and admittedly controversial new literature in this area, surprisingly not cited by FISC in any of the discussions related to copyright and ownership.
Overall, it is not clear what the thesis is that gave rise to this report, nor what is its intended audience or outcome. The superficial appearance of systematic research (e.g., a lot of footnotes) is belied by the fact that crucial literature is not referenced, that unreliable statistics are used without careful analysis, that anecdotal information is inappropriately and erratically incorporated, and that what is basically a critique of academic libraries has been done with almost no consultation of central recent studies in library science and library management or interviewing of recognized authorities in the field.
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