As the holiday season approaches, many of us will be writing Santa with special requests for gifts.
All I want for Christmas is a library card.
Yes, yes, of course I have a library card, but that card is to my hometown public library. I love our little library, but what I really want is remote access to the digital collections of the University of California, one of whose campuses is a mere 100 yards from my house. As I do not have a university affiliation, the only way I can use the digital collections is to go on campus and use a computer within the walls of the library. This would not be so bad if I were involved with a research project that required me to spend the better part of a day at the library, but for the most part my research needs are one-shot questions — the need to look up a single article from a journal, perhaps, or a desire to check out the etymology of one word in the Oxford English Dictionary. Remote access would be a godsend — or a Santa-send.
It’s mind-boggling that I cannot obtain it at any price.
Santa, I have been real good this year!
I can hear the objections from non-elves already. I could purchase individual subscriptions to the publications, but no one who has added up these figures seriously believes that individual subscriptions are an option except in those cases where the individual requires not casual use of a publication but concerted, professional use (e.g., a library consultant who might subscribe to a journal on collection-building). The cost of an annual subscription for individuals to the OED, for example, is $295 per year. If you look up a handful of terms in the OED each week (a credible definition of non-professional use), you begin to do the arithmetic: $3 per look-up? $5? For this reason, most individuals make a default decision — subscribe to a handful of heavily used publications, get unauthorized access to materials that are too dear to purchase, and use the free, if often unreliable, resources of the open Web the rest of the time. I suspect that the goal of unauthorized access accounts for a certain number of liaisons with librarians that are, as they say, “not in the catalog.”
Objection #2: That’s why we need open access. Maybe so, but it is hard to envision a method by which the world’s publications suddenly became available free of charge for the casual user. Whatever one thinks of the social or moral aspects of the world of publishing, as a practical matter, access is a privilege.
Many people are knocking at the door, but only a few (those with access privileges) get in. As a businessman, I sense an opportunity here: How to monetize the pounding at the door?
One proposed solution comes from the library world. Many librarians would like to be able to grant remote access to their collections for their institutions’ alumni, and alumni are willing to pay an additional, if modest, fee for these rights. On the surface, this sounds like a neat solution. A library already has much of the infrastructure in place: subscriptions to publications, a means to make digital collections available remotely, and authorization schemes to determine who is and who is not an authorized user, not to mention years of experience in determining what materials are worth including in a collection. Thus, a publisher that charges, say, $1,000 for an annual subscription to a library may grant alumni rights for an additional 10%. This is potentially found money for the publisher and an additional service that universities could provide to their alumni, who may demonstrate their gratitude with donations—which could be used to purchase more publications.
On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that enabling libraries to become broader resellers of materials is not in the publishers’ interests. The reason for this is that however one defines the relationship between a library and its parent university, a library is not the center of the universe. (Whenever I talk to librarians about this relationship, I’m reminded of the incessant punning on “universe”/”university” in John Barth’s novel “Giles Goat-boy”.) Alumni go out in the world to take jobs at corporations like Merck, Microsoft, Fujitsu, and countless others, where publishers have assiduously developed markets for their materials. An undergraduate who gets access to Lexis-Nexis may go on to become a senior partner at a Wall Street law firm, where the fees paid to Lexis-Nexis are staggeringly high. If undergraduates carried their institutional access privileges with them through life, the markets for the sale of publications to the corporate and government sectors would collapse—and likely lead to a huge price increase to academic libraries to offset the loss. While some publishers, particularly those with little or nothing in the way of corporate or government sales, may eventually decide to grant alumni rights to libraries, this will at best be a solution with gaping holes. So, once again we are back to a library bypass strategy, which, I repeat for the umpteenth time, is the single most pressing item in the world of scholarly communications today.
But still there is that knocking at the door. It’s time for publishers to join hands and create a consortium whose aim is to monetize users like me, people who have a need to get access to the vast collections of a major university library, but whose anticipated use of any single publication is modest. This is a prospective market segment that will pay for information—it is, in other words, a market and not an unfunded social need. Consortia have served publishers well in other areas; consider CrossRef, the Copyright Clearance Center, and the recent development of CourseSmart, a joint venture of the major college textbook publishers, whose goal is to advance the sale and use of digital textbooks. A carefully planned joint venture could open up a new market segment.
Let’s imagine that all the publishers that currently market digital resources to academic libraries were to participate in the consortium. For the price of a single subscription, an individual would then get remote access to a digital library on the scale of Harvard’s or the University of California’s. The cost of a subscription would not be inexpensive — $500 a year? $1,000? Identifying the right price (or prices, as there could be a tiered model for users who access the service more heavily) would be an interesting exercise; perhaps there could be some guidance by deriving the allocated cost per undergraduate for the use of the library at a research institution. But whatever the price, the proceeds, after subtracting the cost of operating the service, would be shared pro rata by the participating publishers. My $1,000 subscription might yield $50 to Oxford University Press, $75 to Elsevier, and $2 to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The reason publishers resist this kind of formulation is that they mistakenly add up the value of all the content they create (which is indeed worth a tidy sum) and confuse that with the amount of time an individual actually has to spend with any single publication. Few people who are not themselves academics or professional researchers spend many hours doing research. They can’t, as their days are filled with meetings, phone calls, email, and traipsing to and from airports and trade shows. The question for publishers to determine is not how much is a publication worth but how much of an “information tax” they can reasonably impose on one hour of my time.
There are publications for which this will not work, namely, any publication that already has an established consumer market. Let’s say (picking a few publications at random) that the Economist, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Review of Books were to be included in the service. This would lead to many cancellations of subscriptions to those products in favor of the omnibus subscription to the consortial service (assuming no atavistic yearning for print editions). The profile of a target publication for this service is one that is delivered electronically, has a casual readership beyond the world of specialists, and has little in the way of individual subscribers.
Even if publishers are cool to the idea of working jointly, they should consider the comment of Professor Stevan Harnad, who, speaking of another program to reach a new market segment, notes that such initiatives could hamper the movement for open access to research literature:
The current bids to “monetize” the existing OA content — whether from OA journals or from OA repositories — are likely to reduce the momentum (from both users and authors) to provide that missing OA content, as well as to reduce the institutional and funder momentum to mandate that they provide it.
I couldn’t have said it better.
Santa, it’s time to make the North Pole into a sustainable business.