I had hoped that my piece on the serials crisis would provoke some much needed discussion of the plans currently being promoted by commercial publishers for access to the electronic versions of their journals, but I was surprised and pleased by the amount of interest that it has generated. It will take me some time to consider and respond to the many thoughtful comments. The following remarks are focused primarily on Elsevier's reply published in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues #181. Needless to say, the views expressed are strictly my own unless otherwise attributed.
Despite the admiration I expressed for their ongoing success in mining tons of money from a willing academic market, Elsevier was obviously not entirely pleased with my remarks. This is apparent in the unifying theme of John Tagler's response, which seems to be that I am fundamentally in the business of conveying misleading or inaccurate information about Elsevier publications. The grain of truth here is the one factual error of which I am aware and for which Elsevier has my apologies: my parenthetical reference to the percentage increase in the size of Tetrahedron Letters from 1974 to 1997.
Except for this one embarrassing instance where I am caught with my innumeracy showing, I will stand behind the accuracy of my statements. The source of the confusion (I'm trying to be charitable here) seems to be that there are big differences between what Elsevier is willing to say publicly about its prices for electronic access and what a given university or consortium might be able to negotiate in private. The scenario which I describe in my piece was communicated verbally to my library administration several months ago and discussed in a meeting of science librarians. In essence it is the full-access approach negotiated by OhioLink which is described in the May 26 issue of Library Hotline: you agree to continue paying for all of your current subscriptions, plus annual percentage increases for 1997-1999 and in return you get electronic access to most of the Elsevier titles. OhioLink, of course -- being a large consortium -- was presumably offered better terms than the UW, and it would be most interesting to see all the details in print. The public versus private possibilities, I assume, account for the differences between the formula discussed with Wisconsin and the one described by Tagler: 1995 holdings as a basis versus 1997; different ways of calculating the percentage increases etc.
Be that as it may, I applaud Tagler's expressed willingness to clarify the Elsevier proposal in writing. It is a promising beginning and hopefully we can now look forward to even more candid descriptions of the possibilities for Elsevier electronic access. The decisions that academic libraries make regarding these access proposals involve huge amounts of money and will most likely shape the history of scientific publishing for the next few decades. The more information we have then, the better. I would particularly like to know, for example, Elsevier's present thinking on pricing options after 1999.
I do have a couple other bones to pick with Tagler's response. He seems to assert, for example, that libraries have a choice as to whether they opt for the full-access approach or merely electronic access to their current holdings. I would argue that this choice is more apparent than real. The full-access approach is the only real game in town. It is certainly the only deal that library directors -- especially directors of large, research libraries -- might be able to sell to their administrations -- and it is nowhere mentioned in Tagler's reply. Instead, it appears that we are offered electronic access to our current holdings according to the following formula: the cost of present subscriptions plus 7.5% in 1997 (6% before July 1), plus 9.5% in each of the next two years. The percentage increases for 1998-99 would be based on the "aggregate payment in 1997 for print plus electronic." Applying this formula to the cost of Wisconsin's Elsevier holdings ($844,677), the added electronic access would cost us an extra $235,874 over the three year period. But don't forget the $70,000 to $100,000 needed to mount the data here!
Say what you will about the advantages and future inevitability of electronic access, this is an awful lot of money to pay for electronic access to journals which you already own and which -- with a few exceptions -- are regarded by scientists in my field to be of secondary or tertiary importance. This is a choice all right, but by the same token I can also choose to shoot myself in either the left or right foot. Since the full-access scenario discussed with Wisconsin a couple months ago is apparently no longer valid, perhaps Mr. Tagler would be willing to update us as to exactly what a large research university such as Wisconsin could now expect to pay for full access? If it is simply a matter of applying the annual percentage increases he mentions to the price for the entire list (Hold on Croesus!), then it would be helpful to know that figure. He might begin by nailing down the total number of Elsevier electronic journals that would be part of the deal. It has been variously reported as 1200, 1150 and 1100. When you are dealing with journals that can cost up to $14,000 per year, this is hardly a trivial point. Tagler regrets that I am unable to perceive the "win-win benefit" of Elsevier's approach to electronic access and the "reasonableness" of guaranteed 9.5% increases -- when compared to "historical increases industry-wide." I would suggest that my presumed short-sightedness should be evaluated in its proper context. Firstly, Elsevier's journals are in general hugely over-priced when compared to professional society journals of comparable size and equal or superior quality. And based on citation and cost per use data they are -- with some exceptions -- much less valuable. Thanks to the spiraling cost of commercial science journals during the last two decades, academic librarians have been able to look forward to nearly annual funding crises which have distorted library expenditures and drained away resources that could have been committed, for example, to building the electronic future to which I and most librarians are committed. Secondly, when you talk about "reasonable" price increases based on "industry-wide" comparisons, I believe we should take into account that -- given the rate at which Elsevier has been absorbing other publishers and information companies (recently MDL) -- it may not be too long before Elsevier is the industry.
No, I'm afraid that -- given this context -- I am likely to remain a blinkered curmudgeon with respect to the value of these deals, whether you are talking about the absurdly expensive approach described by Tagler or the more alluring, full-access contract such as the one negotiated by OhioLink. According to the Library Hotline article, Ohioans will be paying $23 million for this agreement over three years. I would think that a taxpayer from that state would want to ask some hard questions about the real value of the information they are getting for that price. No doubt some faculty members doing research at smaller colleges will benefit from the improved access and the deal for them could appear quite attractive. But just how important is it, for example, that students at Ohio's two year colleges -- or for that matter any undergraduates anywhere -- have desktop access to journals such as Thermochimica Acta? My observation as a chemistry librarian at a major university with an extensive and varied research agenda is that even faculty and graduate level specialists rarely have a need for the information in many of these titles. Consequently, as this has become apparent and the prices have sky-rocketed, we have canceled such journals and offered our faculty free document delivery services for the few articles we need. Despite the fact that we subscribe to only half of the Elsevier list (campus-wide) and have canceled dozens of expensive chemistry journals, it is a rare month when the Chemistry Library orders more than ten articles. Other universities have taken a similar course of action. Elsevier and other commercial publishers have responded by jacking up the price of their "winners." Hence, the birth of the $14,000 journal.
I am back to the argument I made in my article. These deals may save some libraries some money in the short run, but in the long run they will only insure the indefinite continuation of the serials crisis. Hard pressed library directors will be sorely tempted by the prospect of three years of predictable and "reasonable" prices, but I believe they would be opting for a Chamberlainesque "peace-in-our-time" solution. We will only find a way out of this dilemma, as David Henige has written, when the scientists and scholars who write and read the literature realize that it is their problem to solve (Editing History, 13/1, Spring 1997, pp. 2-5). This would certainly involve the creation of new, affordable journals that would provide an outlet for the ever-expanding supply of literature which will not diminish anytime soon.
One final comment in closing. In my piece I suggested that the faculty would quickly become more sensitized to the journal crisis issue if we "gave them the money." Some readers have pointed out that this approach would be unworkable or worse, i.e., the abdication of a central aspect of a librarian's responsibilities. Although this was proposed with tongue in cheek, I can understand why my attempt at irony did not succeed with everyone, for there is certainly a real problem here, i.e., the insulation of the faculty at many universities from library budgetary problems. Given the criticism I have received of the "give them the money" idea, I believe we may have to resort to my fall-back plan for capturing the attention of the faculty. I have yet to flesh out the details, but it involves the recruiting of a band of seriously pro-active librarians who would kidnap Nobel prize winners in appropriate scientific areas. They would be held -- most likely in some remote book storage facility -- until such time as they agreed to lend their name to the founding of an affordable scientific journal. They would be treated gently and graciously, of course, (these would be biblio-terrorists after all) -- with one exception: to encourage proper thinking, their sole intellectual nourishment would be the collected essays of Charles Hamaker (reproduced from this Newsletter) on the sins of commercial publishers.
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