It’s almost too easy to argue that scholarly publishers and librarians have sold themselves a load of bad ideas — author-pays journals and institutional repositories that invite over-publication and proliferation of bad copies of research findings, in addition to compromising objectivity. But perhaps the greatest bad idea we’ve sold ourselves is that the subscription model is dead.
In a recent article in the New York Times, the benefits of the subscription model are explored, painfully starting with the framework that publishers once embraced it. The article does a nice job of objectively listing the benefits to businesses the subscription model brings, many of which stabilize finances so that publishers can cultivate long-term growth and withstand a periodic downturn.
Interestingly, the notion of “planned obsolescence” is lumped in as a subscription model choice, meaning if you buy a top-of-the-line car very few years, you are opting to “subscribe” more intensely to the technology genre than someone who buys a utilitarian vehicle and runs it into the ground. It’s what the author of this piece calls “the subscription mentality,” which he also uses to view the housing market:
Some of the madness of the recent housing bubble can be blamed on an extension of the subscription mentality. What exactly were homeowners doing when they bought a house for little or no money down with the intention of holding it for two or three years before upgrading to a better home? They were treating an investment in real estate as though it were just another consumable product, to be disposed of with the same emotion one shows in recycling a monthly magazine.
People who thought of their home that way got away with it only as long as the home’s value grew enough to let them sell and trade up.
As the people responsible for our information industry, it’s worth remembering that the subscription model isn’t dead, nor is the subscription mentality. Institutional site licenses are actually subscriptions of a certain type, ones that bundle the cost and benefits differently.
At least, that’s if you subscribe to this type of thinking.