NO 161 -- May 6, 1996

Editor: Marcia Tuttle

ISSN: 1046-3410




Tom Graham, York University,

[Received March 27, 1996.]

Electronic journals (as distinct from electronic editions of hard-copy periodicals) are now moving into mainstream thinking, and discussion is growing both on their real costs (see Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads) and on how they are to be paid for by those using them. This paper is concerned with the second issue. I write as a librarian involved with one of the U.K. E-Lib Electronic Journal projects. While some of the new electronic journals becoming available may be subsidised in some way at this early stage, all of them will eventually have to obtain revenue to cover their costs at some stage, i.e. they will have to establish an "exit strategy." My perception is that new journal projects are addressing this issue, if at all, on an individual basis. These notes are based on informal discussions, but are intended to generalize and stimulate the debate.

1. An electronic journal will have software and hardware costs of some kind and will also have editorial costs associated with the process of gathering material and bringing it together to form the electronic product, even if these are explicitly or implicitly subsidised.

     Possible revenue streams might be -
       Institutional subscriptions
       Personal subscriptions
       National site licenses
       Publication subventions, e.g. grants for publication,   
        page charges.
2. The current generation of web servers has a great deal of flexibility in dealing with controlling access to information and the management of financial transactions (although there are issues of security).

Any software will need to support the restriction of access by IP address or by any component of that address. To manage pay-per-access usage, the software would need to support credit-card-charging.

3. Institutional and personal subscriptions

On the conventional model, a subscription is related to the likely size of the market, and this will clearly vary. In some cases, the economics of publishing the journal may indicate that a significant number of subscriptions is needed to ensure that it is viable.

There can be concern that if the volume of institutional subscription is high, then it is possible that the volume of individual subscriptions will be low. One fear of electronic publishers is that the multiple access possibilities of electronic journals will eliminate personal subscriptions entirely. A possible response is to consider providing only personal subscriptions. This does not seem to be a realistic option, since it does not meet the need of the market for multiple use and flies in the face of network realities.

One other possibility would be limit the number of access-points from which an institutional subscription is accessible, in order to encourage personal subscriptions. A further option might be to give personal subscribers access to enhanced issues: these might, e.g., access software tools to re-work data or access to additional information to contextualise the material.

Focusing on instititutional subscriptions, one possibility sometimes touted is to base these on the size of the institution. It would certainly be difficult to make this effective within an international marketplace and would be very difficult to police effectively, apart from other, more philosophical, objections. A variant on this would be for institutions/bodies to purchase on the basis of "price per user ID," thus allowing an institution to pay in relation not to its size, but to its level of interest. How this could be handled administratively is a difficult question.

A variant on the institutional subscription might be for national/international organizations as distinct from institutions to contract for access on behalf of all their members.

Turning to personal subscribers, one question might be whether personal subscribers be limited to accessing the journal from a single machine or from anywhere on the Internet? This seems to negate the main point of the exercise which is to free the user from the constraints of location.

These issues indicate the way in which it is difficult to balance the economics of such journals with optimizing the use of the technology. Experience suggests that the technological capabilities will always win in the end. The relationship of institutional and personal subscriptions as we know them is called into question by the electronic journal.

4. National/regional site licensing.

This is an approach which has become established in the U.K for a number of individual publications and with publishers through the Higher Education Funding Councils and CHEST.* If it was thought of as a possible option, then more work would be needed on details. It has been suggested by some librarians that this is likely to provide the easiest pattern for institutions. The co-operative element potentially has benefits for both suppliers and purchasers. It also avoids the problem of personal users passing on passwords. If negotiated through CHEST, the administration would be less onerous. However, it should be remembered that 30% of learned journal content originates outside HE institutions, and their readership also extends much wider. In addition, almost all journals would wish to market themselves internationally, so such an approach could not possibly suffice on its own. A variation on such an approach which could have wider application than national licensing would be individual institutional licences, although this may be no different in reality from a conventional institutional subscription with a more explicit set of conditions.

5. Publication subventions

In some subjects and countries, there are real possibilities for the support of publishing by the bodies which provide financial support for research. Its introduction in other subjects/countries might involve a substantial culture change. Page charges are the most common form of subvention. While they have tended to become less popular in recent years; the possibility of re-introducing them has nevertheless been scouted in the e-mail discussions on this topic. The problem with these is that they place emphasis on the wealth of the individual or institution rather than the value of what (s)he has to say. In addition, the growing emphasis on getting material published in the "right" journal could lead to manipulation of the system. In principle, there is also the issue of whether public sector institutions should actually pay private sector bodies to publish their results: is this an even more extreme example of what happens now with the research results being given away and then sold back?

Certainly, both a general culture shift would be required for such an approach be adopted, and the issue of how economically practical it is would also have to be addressed.

6. Pay-per-access

This does not tend to be regarded kindly by librarians, primarily because it seems uncontrolled expenditure, but it is being actively discussed as the major alternative to block subscriptions and must therefore be explored in more detail. In the age of access, some method for providing access to material to which a block subscription/licence has not been paid is essential. The idea that the journal issue/ volume is simply a print-based form of packaging, and that the article rather than the issue/volume is the unit of publication, leads to the conclusion that access to the individual "article" is a reasonable way to offer facilities. From the publishers' viewpoint, it may also provide an additional source of income, enabling subscription prices to be held down and encouraging more subscriptions (there are a lot of "ifs" buried in that sentence, but let it stand!).

In informal discussion, the idea was developed of access to the contents page and to certain "tasters" (which might include abstracts) being provided free. Access to the individual articles would be available for a variable fee. The fee might depend on timeliness of the data, commercial usefulness, popularity (!), complexity and whether processing of data on the journal server was needed. A table ofcharges would be maintained to support this. Searches to find whether a particular topic was covered in the journal would be free.

There are attractions to this approach, and it is clearly one which builds on present practice in terms of document delivery. There are also issues of principle relating to the concept of fair dealing, which are likely to require more extensive discussion in relation to electronic publishing generally.

7. Pay-per-delivery

The difference between this approach and the previous model is that the user could get a view of the article without paying, but would need to pay to obtain a copy. Questions about it are:

         Is it feasible? Is the technology available to make
          it impossible to download without paying? 
         Should a non-subscriber even be able to see the text
          of an "article"? It is not possible in print, so why
          should it be possible in electronic formats?
There is a spectrum ranging across the basic bibliographical data, the addition of an abstract, the addition of tasters of fuller data as outlined in 6 above, and the full text. The issue is how far along that line should the user be able to go before payment is required.

8. Coverage of subscriptions

Since journals will be held on a server, access is controlled. The issue arises of what a subscription pays for. My discussions suggest that subscribers purchasing an annual subscription would be entitled to access issues released during the year for which they had subscribed even if they cancelled the subscription. Subscribers who wished to access issues published in years to which they had not subscribed could do so by paying per article or by purchasing subscriptions to back issues. This would obviously be affected by the total approach to financing the journal.

9. There is a certain amount of published material on this and related subjects, and no doubt some of that will help develop solutions to the issues outlined here. These notes are more informal and reflect an ongoing discussion in a particular practical situation. The issues covered are however general: they are relevant to the problems of libraries, but also raise questions about scholarly communication, the economics of electronic journals, and relationships between players in the market. I have concentrated on the kind of emerging journals we are now seeing, and have avoided including the more radical proposals which flow from the Physics Pre-print Archive approach, and the idea of discipline databases. I think that they raise practical issues which the community has to consider, and views on them would be useful not only to those involved in the E-Lib Electronic Journal projects, but in the whole business of scholarly communication. I am grateful to members of SCONUL's Advisory Committee on Scholarly Communication for comments on an earlier draft of this.

* CHEST stands for Combined Higher Education Software Team. It has negotiated many deals for the use of software in the UK higher education community, and a few years ago also took on the task of doing this for a number of databases. These include the ISI databases, BIOSIS, Embase, etc. This has been a very successful initiative indeed, which is why it comes to mind as an option within (but only within) the UK context.

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