I am surprised and alarmed that there has been very little mention of the package deals that some commercial publishers, especially Elsevier and Academic, are currently promoting to academic libraries for purchasing their print/electronic journals. Acceptance of these offers, I believe, would be a watershed event in the history of scientific/technical/medical (STM) journal pricing. Perhaps the word has simply not gotten around yet, but from what I have heard, time is running out. Some major libraries or library consortia (OhioLink, the CIC, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota) are either seriously considering these proposals or may have already signed on the dotted line. In hopes of provoking some discussion, I would like to describe the offer that Elsevier has presented to my university and make some comments. I do not have all the details, but here in essence is the package:
A) The University of Wisconsin-Madison is offered electronic access to most of the Elsevier group STM journals, about 1200 titles. A few medical titles belonging to one Elsevier subsidiary are not included, e.g., Excerpta Medica. We currently subscribe to about 600 of the 1200 titles.
B) The cost will be based upon the number of Elsevier subscriptions held in 1995 -- calculated at the 1997 prices -- plus an annual surcharge. The contract would run for three years. First year cost: 1997 list price of 1995 subscriptions plus 7.5%. Second year: cost of first year plus 9.5%. Third year: cost of second year plus 9.5%. In 1997 we paid Elsevier $844,677 for the 600 subscriptions. We have not finished compiling the list of titles held in 1995, so I do not have an exact figure, but my administration estimates that this formula would result in a price in excess of one million dollars for the first year of the deal. If my meager math skills have not misled me, it appears that Elsevier would collect an additional $449,348 over the three year period, i.e., assuming first year costs of one million and then adding in and compounding the 9.5% increases for the second and third years. Moreover, the initial estimate for the cost to a library of mounting the database is between $70,000 to $100,000.
It seems obvious to me that this deal is designed to carry Elsevier's enviable profit margins safely into the electronic era. Or, seen from the perspective of a librarian, it is a way to perpetuate the "serials crisis" into the indefinite, electronic future. Admittedly, some universities might find this very seductive. Imagine! All that access and Elsevier locked into what might be considered modest increases for this publisher for two years.
But just how valuable is this access? We should keep in mind that we are being asked to pay not only for the more successful titles that we have been forced to retain despite their mind boggling prices, but also for all the low-use, high-cost titles that many of us have canceled years ago -- those titles, in other words, that we never should have bought into in the first place. In my mind, the publishers have hit upon a brilliant, "back-to-the-future" strategy, a return (via electronic vehicle) to the good old days of sum-sufficient serials budgets when librarians such as myself eagerly subscribed to every promising journal, knowing that the money would not come out of our budgets, but from some vaguely understood but seemingly limitless central library fund.
Another worrisome aspect of these deals is that they seek to restrict the use of electronic text for interlibrary loan purposes. So the future begins to shape up like this: we agree by contract to support every journal that the publishers serve up to us, i.e., we forfeit the only effective means we have to make a point about high journal prices, namely, cancellations. Then, in the same contract we agree to limitations on the borrowing and lending of copies of articles between libraries, which -- given ever rising royalty fees -- will soon be the only affordable way to get a copy of an article from a canceled journal. That Elsevier has their eye fixed on an all-electronic future is suggested by another aspect of the contract: a 10% discount is offered for each print subscription that is canceled.
Now, it is not unthinkable, I suppose, that Elsevier and other publishers will decide that in the brave new world of electronic journals they will have to go easier on libraries, if only out of fear that they might kill the academic golden goose that has been so kind to them so far. For my part, I would be concerned that more "normal" price increases might return at the expiration of the three year contract. What constitutes normalcy in this regard is reflected in the price histories of some of Elsevier's more popular chemistry titles. Take Tetrahedron Letters for example, which cost $200 in 1974 but now carries a price tag of $6845. Even allowing for dollar devaluation, inflation, increase in size (about 50%), I believe we can agree that this is an amazing increase in price, particularly in the light of declining production costs during this period. And, lest anyone should think that this is an isolated example, in just one year (1996 to 1997) the companion journal, Tetrahedron, increased in price by $1176, or $118 more than libraries paid for a 1996 subscription to the ACS's premier organic chemistry journal, the Journal of Organic Chemistry.
The publishers, of course, can hardly be blamed for wanting to make lots of money. As others have observed before me, the publishers have only done what successful companies do: identify a promising new market (growing numbers of scholars/scientists who must publish to survive), devise a product to meet the need (new journals), and then charge as much as the market will bear. I suspect, in fact, that the publishers themselves have been amazed when they learned that their customers, mainly academic libraries, seemed willing and able to bear any burden. For some reason I am reminded of an old cartoon I once saw (Bill Mauldin?) which illustrated the black humor of the American military during World War II. It showed two German soldiers hunched over their machine gun and peering out over the battlefield. The one is saying to the other: "It's amazing, Heinrich. The Americans seem to have an inexhaustible supply of 2d Lieutenants."
It may be pointless to begrudge the commercial publishers their success, but I believe we should all be appalled at the end result of the high prices: convenient access to the research published in these titles is increasingly beyond the reach of many individuals and libraries. In recent years the situation has become truly grotesque in some cases. The prices of some journals -- a few Gordon and Breach titles come to mind -- have risen so high that, as far as I can tell, not a single academic library in the U.S. can afford them. Ironically, these journals survive, sustained no doubt by a handful of companies, for whom a subscription constitutes a new species of proprietary information. That much of the information in these journals is produced by scientists supported by public universities or funded by government grants, should give us all pause.
Since I am suggesting that we should reject these deals, it is only fair that I also say what I think we might do instead. In the first place, I believe we need to admit that libraries have failed miserably in the struggle for affordable journals. We librarians have failed because, except for canceling journals, we have no effective way to influence the publishing process. We have merely been empowered to pay the bills. After all the years of talk and agitation by librarians at all levels (the last eight years of it collected in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues) we have succeeded only in ushering in the era of the $10,000 journal (Surface Science, BBA) with an annual inflation rate that can vary between 10% and 80%.
Second, we must dedicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the next phase of the struggle for affordable journals is conducted by that group that has not only the most to lose by continuing our present course, but also the power to chart a new one: the scholars and scientists who are the producers and consumers of the literature. As a colleague of mine has written recently in an article aimed at historians, we will only begin to pull ourselves out of the sinkhole of run-away journal prices when the scholarly community decides to "take the publishing process firmly and irrevocably back into its own hands." (David Henige "Averting Armageddon: A Modest Proposal," Editing History, v.13, No. 1, spring, 1997). Putting it bluntly in the context of my own field, unless academic chemists -- whether through their professional societies or other collective efforts -- set about the task of establishing affordably priced, new journals that compete with the Tetrahedrons and the Surface Sciences, the era of the $10,000 print journal will very soon be succeeded by the era of the $20,000 electronic journal.
Persuading academic chemists to assume the burden of founding new journals in a time when the unavoidable demands of grantsmanship are already eating away at the time available for research might seem like an impossible task. It would require, as Henige suggests in his article, "a serious reorientation of value systems in academia, which esteem and reward authorship, yet at the same time in practice denigrate its equally necessary observe, editorship." He envisions -- as a remedy -- the recruiting and training of a "cadre of editorially-minded historians" who would receive meaningful recognition (e.g., tenure, promotion) for the critically important contribution they would be making to their field.
Changing the value system of chemists or other academic scientists would surely be as long and difficult an undertaking as it would be for historians. And in the case of chemistry which has the dubious distinction of having spawned the most costly journals known to mankind, the stakes are even higher. Since the Elsevier/Academic deals suggest that we may not have much time, I believe that libraries must countenance some strong measures which might jump start the process. Academic scientists must be given not only powerful career incentives for assuming the burdens of editorship, but also the fiscal resources they would require.
It has occurred to me (and certainly not to me alone) that a major reason why faculty have difficulty focusing on the problem of run-away journal costs is the same reason I could not do so in the 1970s. The money being spent is not THEIRS, but the library's. Let me hasten to add that my faculty and, I suspect, most chemistry faculties have been very supportive as the library has struggled to maintain an adequate collection. They have given advice about cancellations, taken the publishers to task for their prices, refused to submit articles to certain publications, and even turned down offers of editorships. But since the money was not theirs, they were naturally inclined to keep their distance. As much as they might "feel our pain," they have been reluctant to enter into the fray. Since I am now suggesting that the faculty must lead the charge, obviously this must change. I believe the libraries must give them the money.
This may seem a bit extreme at first, but it is actually a very conservative notion, another "back-to-the-future" strategy, if you will. After all, for a long time many university science libraries were managed and funded by academic departments. I would not burden the departments with the entire library operation, of course, or even the entire serials budget. The idea would be to add up the current subscription prices of all commercially published journals and then move the money back into the budgets of the appropriate departments. Of course, the transfer of cash would have to be organized on a national or ideally on an international scale to be meaningful. And once the deal was struck, the event should be accorded the appropriate amount of pomp and symbolism -- a ceremonial banquet, perhaps, where a librarian of sufficiently high status (the director of ARL?) would be captured by the cameras as she/he presents one of those five-foot-long, symbolic checks with an incredible number of zeros on it to an appropriately illustrious representative of the academic science community.
Once the various departments have the money in their budgets, several things are likely to happen. First, the faculty will begin to ponder the implications of continuing the status quo. I believe they would soon begin to hear a noise akin to the Perot-style "great sucking noise" which became famous in a recent presidential election. In this case, however, what they would be hearing would be the sound of research dollars flowing in the direction of journal budgets. Secondly, as the noise grew inexorably louder, they might begin to wonder if a million dollars (just in the case of Wisconsin) is not just a tad more money than a single university in a state with relatively modest economic resources should pay for access to literature from one STM publisher.
At that point, the idea of launching some affordable, alternative journals could come under serious consideration, and a way to underwrite the costs would be staring them in the face. Think of the war chest that could be assembled (I can't seem to escape these militaristic metaphors) if all the larger universities in the US decided to continue a policy of aggressively canceling any commercial journal that they could possibly live without and then pooled a small percentage of the savings! Remember that the University of Wisconsin-Madison alone would have to pay more than a half million dollars EXTRA over three years if it were to accept the Elsevier forumula. A trifling contribution of $50,000 per year from each of the ARL-size universities alone would amount to $3,000,000 per year, certainly enough to stimulate the founding of a few journals.
About two years ago Barbara Quint published an article about STM journal pricing which I found both encouraging and flattering: "The March of the Lemmings," Information Today, June 1995. Encouraging, because it depicts the commercial publishers not as clever strategists bent on using their vast resources and deep understanding of the academic market to secure their future, but rather as helpless lemmings whose rapacious pricing policies and other, more recent revenue enhancing schemes were inherently suicidal. The immediate impetus for her article had been a decision by John Wiley and other publishers to begin charging secondary publishers (abstracting and indexing services) for subscriptions. The article was flattering because librarians were identified as one of the important forces which were about to "link up against the publishers" and speed them on their way to oblivion:
How long before angry librarians give journal editors an earful of explanations of why the journals on which they work so hard do not appear on library shelves? How long before authors and editors meet to discuss the problem at faculty get-togethers with university research press representatives or at sessions with research funding agencies looking for ways of squeezing more value from the research dollar?... And who will help the research funders and article writers convert their scholarship into useful, electronic-and-print products for sale and re-use at reasonable prices under reasonable terms? Who do you think: All those disgruntled librarians and secondary publishers, that's who.
How long indeed? The news that OhioLink and others are about to accept the long-term access plans currently being proffered by some of the major STM publishers suggests to me that we are talking about a very long time. The publishers have shown themselves to be a bit cannier in the ways of academia than Quint imagined. This was not quite the linkage she had in mind. In fact, if librarians and the faculties they serve don't come up with some better ideas, it may be time for a sequel to her witty and provocative essay -- with different casting for the part of the lemmings.
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