NO 233 - August 10, 1999

Editor: Marcia Tuttle

ISSN: 1046-3410


233.2 SAY IT AIN'T SO, CHUCK, James Tobin
233.5 THE COMING GRAND ADVENTURE, Lance Sultzbaugh

Frederick J. Friend, Director, Scholarly Communication, University College London,

Chuck Hamaker is absolutely right. The nice, reasonable people we meet are not the people who make the pricing decisions. I have found it very frustrating not to be able to get through to the chief executives, the board members and the major shareholders who really drive these decisions. Their priority is higher profits for shareholders, and that is the only reason they would pay attention to cancellations by libraries. That makes me think that our hopes of influencing pricing in the publishing world as it is are futile, and that if we really do want to have an influence, we have to get control of publishing back into academic hands. I do not know whether it would be possible to do this through the stock markets. Could universities buy enough shares to influence the pricing policy of a major publisher? Would that drive the share price down and lead to big losses for the universities making the purchases of shares? The other option is to support initiatives like SPARC or publishing on university web sites to divert the flow of good-quality publication from high-profit journals into low-profit journals. That again would be the kind of action the real decision-makers in publishing companies would pay attention to.

James Tobin, Collection Development Manager, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,

Chuck Hamaker in issue no. 232: "How to make my company more profitable is the ONLY question any reasonable business would ask."

Say it ain't so, Chuck. If you really think this, the game is up and the most ruthless will always win. Read the article on the Sulzbergers and the New York Times company in the latest (?) New Yorker. This is a megabucks company but limiting all decisions to the bottom line would ruin the long tradition of value they have embraced, and they fired a President who didn't seem to understand this. There are lots of questions a reasonable business can, should, and often does ask itself: about providing a product of genuine quality and usefulness, about its reputation for integrity, about not doing unnecessary harm (to people or the environment, to think really big), about long-range viability of the company and the product. Just thinking about the next quarter or next year is sure death in the long run.

David Goodman, Biology Librarian, Princeton University,

I do not have the information to address the specific situation of the journals discussed in the recent issues of this newsletter, but in my experience, there are several possible explanations for a publisher's price increases beyond the general level.

The publisher will often claim an increase in content, or increased features. In the case of increased content, since the editors have presumably generally included the better papers, it is almost inevitable that the increased size will lower the average quality. For added features, it will usually be the case that they are more likely to be selling points than anything the readers will find of value. An increasingly troublesome case is where the added feature is an online version. There are only a few journals so important that every library will necessarily think it worthwhile to pay an additional 10% or 20% to receive both in print and online, though for any particular library, though, there will be some journals important enough for its particular mission.

For successful journals, a publisher may seize the opportunity to make an increased profit. Since the success of a journal is measured by the increased number of subscriptions and thus lower per-copy costs, that would normally offer sufficient reward. Especially where the price is already high, as judged by use, impact factor, total citation, and size, anything beyond it may be both inappropriate and counterproductive. A variation of this is where a publisher judges its publications to be indispensable, and assumes that libraries will continue to subscribe regardless of price, a view which may well have been encouraged by the extremely conservative selection policies of many libraries. Cancellations at many libraries are occasional cataclysms reflecting faculty politics rather than continuing reevaluations reflecting quality and usefulness; publishers often feel justified in taking advantage of this.

Most often, though, the increase reflects the declining number of subscriptions. Since the total money available for library subscription increases has for many years increased much more slowly than journal prices, this must unavoidably be the case for most titles, although it need not be the case for any particular title, or any particular publisher. My suspicion is usually that any particular high increase is evidence for a particularly high cancellation rate. An academic library may judge that their archival responsibilities in a particular narrow area may make it necessary to continue such a title until it ceases; outside of such an area, I confirm by checking current holdings, and then take the hint.

Lionel Robson, Manager, Collection Services, University of New South Wales,

Chuck Hamaker's comments (NSPI #232) about pricing decisions will ring a bell with many librarians. His views resonate with those of Herbert White who has been highlighting similar issues for years. To vary a well known phrase -- Le plus que l'on parle, le plus que les choses ne chargent pas.

Lance Sultzbaugh, Research Librarian, Elan Pharmaceuticals,

Chuck Hamaker at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, recently offered some useful views on publisher "bundles" (Pricing Newsletter 232). In a subsequent personal communication, he recommended the study published as Stephen Bensman and Stanley Wilder: "Scientific and Technical Serials Holdings Optimization in an Inefficient Market: An LSU Serials Redesign Project Exercise" Library Resources and Technical Services, 42 No. 3 (July, 1998), and offered a pointer to his own fuller treatment of these issues, "Three reasons why Ideal isn't my candidate for a four star rating" at . Another candidate essay Chuck provided is "Pricing Models: Past, Present, and Future?" by David Stern (science librarian at Yale), and is available at

The theme connecting these works has been provided by (mainly) commercial publishers who seem to believe that librarians, and serials acquisition librarians in particular, are not intelligent, professionally trained consumers. Accordingly, we will fall for any sort of "deal" as long as it is marketed properly. In the present discussion, "marketed properly" means a pay-one-price, smorgasbord offer: even if you don't like all these dishes, we're going to give you the opportunity to eat them anyway. Oh, and the publisher sets the price, the terms, the means of access, and so on. Take it or leave it.

The central focus for me is the setting in which all the recent marketing of online access and services by publishers is taking place. At the end of 1995, there may have been about 100 journals available online. Sometime in the year 2000, that number may exceed 10,000. This includes perhaps half the total STM journals if one counts the national literature and vanity presses. The emergence of online publishing, and the possibilities for genuine enhancement of content -- multimedia, hyperlinks to cited works, the possibility of including very large datasets, to name a few -- was and is very exciting.

At the same time, development of necessary software was proceeding apace (e.g. metadata tools), and even more exciting research was emerging (e.g. CiteSeer). Publishers took note of all these converging technologies and cultural adjustments, and began developing methods to incorporate them into their traditional, commercial, print products. Many early efforts were clunky, even funny. The marketing folks were feeling their way into (for them) uncharted territory. Librarians already had seen the possibilities available through computer-mediated access to a variety of products, on intranets and the WWW. I think most of us thought that after a few fits and starts, some growing pains, and a bit of struggle, that the whole set of issues would sort themselves out, and technology development would proceed rationally, end-user training would evolve into intuitive self-training, and a bright new day would dawn. Sorry.

We are in a period of transition from print-only to pretty much online-only publishing, especially in the fields covered by STM journals. Right now, we're having a rather large family fight about how we are going to enter the real first phase of that transition. Harold Varmus' proposal for an online archive of bioscience research reports (E-Biomed) gave particular energy to the discussion of the issues involved. The players have arranged themselves on one side of the argument or the other pretty much along the lines one would expect, with commercial and big-money professional organizations against the idea, and everybody else interested, if not enthusiastic.

The E-Biomed proposal is skeletal, and will require a lot of development. Some advocates (e.g. Stevan Harnad) have urged individual researchers to begin immediate self-archiving of pre-prints of their research reports. Harnad argues that this self-archiving is not unlike the Los Alamos National Laboratory model for high energy physics papers. This is a silly idea. If followed (and successful) it would result in a vast literature spread over an equally vast number of sites, and render all of it relatively inacessible. Others (e.g. Albert Henderson) are very worried that simpleminded scientists and physicians will be tricked by the cachet of E-Biomed into accepting junk science as true. Or that patients would demand from their physicians treatments reported in junk literature, and that those doctors would not be able to withstand the groundswell of importuning patients.

The pre-print server at Los Alamos went almost unnoticed outside the high-energy physics community, but it was noticed in the publishing industry. Commercial publishers were early to see the (to them negative) implications of online publishing, and rushed to consolidate and wall themselves off from competition. The learned society and professional organization journals were slower on the uptake, although some quickly appreciated the lessons being taught by the commercial types. They have had considerable time to prepare to resist the changes which are surely coming.

What I see in that not-so-distant future -- that we all like to talk about -- is pretty easy to imagine. The central community of interest around STM literature is researchers, readers, librarians, and computer scientists. They will form the core which will draft a proposal (for critical review and revision) which will outline the philosophy and practices of a useful online archive of bioscience research reports. There will be recommendations for standard submission formats, standards for metadata tags (probably adopted from existing work), standards for included multimedia, and so forth. There will be proposals for the funding and operations of the archive. The issues of peer-review versus non-peer-reviewed literature will be addressed. The issues of persistence, and of legacy materials will be addressed. Concerns about access, security, and reliability of provenance will be dealt with.

In time, any user will be able to monitor the daily submissions to the archive via a bot which will report the titles and abstracts of any manuscript which matches keyword or other criteria specified by the user. It will be a virtual journal, with a current awareness component delivered daily via e-mail. There will be no direct cost to users or to submitters. Using the budgeting model of the Canadian SKN proposal, the first three years may take $24 million, with maintenance running much less in subsequent years. I have wonderful ideas as to how to fund this.

This will be a VERY LARGE undertaking. Unlike the very important but quantitatively small literature at Los Alamos, the STM literature is vast, and will require substantial computing power and infrastructure to make it usefully available. Besides being a VERY LARGE undertaking, I believe it will also be a GRAND ADVENTURE. Everyone who contributes their skills to the development of this archive will achieve an amazing goal, set an example for the collection of other literature, and have a lot of fun. If you don't want to play, then you're not invited.

Jamie Cameron, Director, Publications, Institute of Mechanical Engineers,

This is a belated response to Henderson as I have been travelling quite a bit. At the risk of sounding patronising I thought it a very balanced assessment of the situation.

I have one query on the point you make that "the average university contributes less than one percent of the science and technology literature in terms of numbers of articles." My experience is almost the reverse though I haven't done a careful count. I am working in engineering journals at the moment but in the past I have worked in journals in most areas of science, technology and medicine. Have I misunderstood you? Are you including grey literature in all this? -- I imagine not. Finally, I have never heard of science and engineering indicators -- I'd be interested to hear more about it. I look forward to your reactions.

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The Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues (ISSN: 1046-3410) is published by the editor through Academic Technology and Networks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as news is available. Editor: Marcia Tuttle, Internet:; Telephone: 919 929-3513; Fax: 919 960-0847. Editorial Board: Keith Courtney (Taylor and Francis Ltd), Fred Friend (University College, London), Birdie MacLennan (University of Vermont), Michael Markwith (Swets Subscription Services, Inc.), James Mouw (University of Chicago), Heather Steele (Blackwell's Periodicals Division), David Stern (Yale University), and Scott Wicks (Cornell University).

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