When site licensing to academic institutions became the dominant form of digital journal sales, many publishers knew they were making a severe strategic compromise. But there was too much money to make in fairly short order. Plus, librarians were vociferous in demanding a future shaped by site licensing.
For publishers, site licensing became a tactic based on revenue and library relationships. For librarians, site licensing became a tactical bridge into the future, but a bridge built only with one plank.
Both librarians and publishers were not acting strategically when they settled on the site license, and there have been substantial implications to the resulting tactical choices.
For publishers, site licensing led to a loss of contact with actual customers — readers — which is starting to make marketing departments and publishers squirm all the more in this era of social media, device-based publishing, and other individual consumption choices. Not having a strong trendline of customer habits and usage patterns creates blindspots in customer knowledge and leaves gaping holes in customer databases. A decade is a long time to lose touch with students, trainees, and young researchers. It also led to extremely discounted per-user prices in publishers’ core markets, often cents on the dollar, despite the perceived steep prices on an aggregate basis.
For libraries, budget reallocation has been the story of the era, with materials budgets shifting to site licensing. There has also been a perceptual price to pay, with faculty seeing the library now as a glorified purchasing department rather than an intellectual partner. Now, publishers are beginning to look beyond the library for revenues owing to flat or declining budgets. Librarians aren’t an appropriate arbiter of a revenue model beyond the librarian-managed site license, and the site license is shrinking.
Recently, a familiar front was opened up in the ongoing “library as purchaser” territory battles, with Nature Publishing Group attempting to increase prices by 400% to University of California libraries. In an open letter, UCLA University Librarian Gary E. Strong notes that some at a Vice Dean at UCSF is ready to boycott Nature journals, urging faculty to:
- Decline to peer review manuscripts for journals from the Nature Publishing Group.
- Resign from Nature Publishing Group editorial and advisory boards.
- Cease to submit papers to the Nature Publishing Group.
- Refrain from advertising any open or new UC positions in Nature Publishing Group journals.
- Talk widely about Nature Publishing Group pricing tactics and business strategies with colleagues outside UC,
and encourage sympathy actions such as those listed above.
Nature’s response has been equally predictable, with phrases we’ve all read before elsewhere, like:
NPG adds huge amounts of value to the very best quality original research, and this situation was simply not sustainable. It is our belief NPG titles represent excellent value for money, whether measured by cost per download, or perhaps more accurately, cost per local citation.
The “rinse and repeat” approach is clear in this exchange and its echoes. From CDL, there are the usual arguments about how many papers are submitted, reviewed, and edited by University of California faculty; claims that Nature is “at war with its own customers”; and the whole “aren’t we supposed to be on the same team” theme. From Nature’s side, there’s the economic argument, the value-add argument, and the per-usage argument, including a nice little trap Nature has made for itself — i.e., since CDL is paying less than others, effectively being subsidized, should CDL’s prices go up, the logical follow-through would be that prices at other institutions would be reduced. I doubt this would happen.
Aside from the fact that libraries aren’t the customers of Nature’s information (students and faculty are — the library is just the purchasing agent), it’s the usual rollercoaster ride of emotional appeals, economic arguments, and shaming, all in an attempt to maintain the library-as-purchaser status quo.
Why that status quo hold sway is worth considering. For librarians, there is the obvious safety that managing these important budgetary items provides. In fact, given the changes in library priorities, it could be argued that these budgets and the digital presences emanating from them are the last bastions of librarianship on any significant scale for academic centers. If these budgets shifted from institutional purchasing departments and digital access management to a technology department, for instance, librarians would find themselves severely marginalized. It’s a situation created by dependence on site licensing as a model, and sustained by the same — but that doesn’t make it right or sustainable.
From a broader university administration point of view, it’s a great situation. Librarians will fight like dogs to keep these budgets as small and predictable as possible, while tuition, fees, and overall revenues can climb independently for academic institutions. In short, there is no incentive to change where or how site licenses are budgeted. What universities have in place now is a very effective way to control costs in this area.
And the costs are certainly controlled. Even with an alleged 400% increase in prices, Nature is projecting that CDL will pay $0.56 per download. It would be interesting to compare the site licensing economics of Nature’s titles to those of, say, PLoS ONE. From what I can see from a sampling of 3-month-old papers, authors are paying between $1.00 and $2.00 per download at the current rates PLoS ONE charges. For a top-tier publication to settle for what appears to be a fraction of what an author-pays publisher with admittedly lighter peer-review standards generates shows how well costs are controlled in a site licensing model.
Academics playing into the boycott give one the impression of possessing a forced naivete, as Keith Yamamoto said to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Although researchers still have “a very strong tie to traditional journals” like Nature, he said, scientific publishing has evolved in the seven years since the Elsevier boycott. “In many ways it doesn’t matter where the work’s published, because scientists will be able to find it,” Mr. Yamamoto said.
As if making an article available to Google is what motivates researchers. An acceptance letter from a Nature journal would be 99% likely to break this boycott for any individual scientist.
The arguments about contribution of peer-review, authorship, editorial expertise, and so forth don’t impress me. Academics contribute these things for all sorts of selfish, career-driven reasons, and the prestige of any one journal often exceeds the prestige of their own institutions, at least in the land of the CV. Peer-review is a great way for an active academic to keep an eye on research in her or his field. There is little altruism propelling this behavior, so to portray it as unselfish contribution is just emotional balderdash.
Shaming for-profit publishers is also not an especially compelling argument to me. Most universities of any size have large stock market and mutual fund portfolios. They depend on dividends from for-profit businesses for a significant proportion of their revenues and important cash flows. Just reflect on how many problems universities encountered when the real estate bubble popped. Layoffs and budget cuts were commonplace. Their money doesn’t waft down from heaven on angel kisses. They, and the parents of their students, and their grant-writing bodies — all were hurt by the rapid decline of the equity markets. (By contrast, non-profit publishers have no requirement to return money to investors, and universities can’t benefit financially from the surpluses they generate.) Librarians should think about this each time a paycheck is deposited. At some level, sniping at a for-profit publisher may be nipping the hand that feeds you. And I’m sure publishers are among the most laudatory members of any institution’s investment pool, when you take a close look at it.
So, here we are, in 2010 — we have librarians holding on to their last major source of power in the digital age, the site licensing budget, which is shrinking or flat; university administrators who likely sense they’ve stumbled upon a great budget watchdog situation for information expenditures; faculty who can be swayed into action but who mostly are still incentivized to publish in high-profile journals while at the same time enjoying the benefits of ubiquitous online access to same; university budgets that depend on equity markets (for-profit companies); and publishers of all kinds who are stymied by this strange brew of tactics, compromises, and short-term thinking while facing increasing expenses and pressures to invest in new markets.
I think it’s deeper than that, and not amenable to the band-aid of “improved communication.” I think this is the inevitable upshot of a fundamentally flawed situation.
There are some important points buried in the rhetoric of those complaining about these higher prices NPG is attempting to reach, but I think you need to look at them slightly differently:
- “Aren’t we on the same team” — The fatal flaw of site licensing is that it pits traditional allies against each other, effectively putting libraries and publishers on opposing teams. This flaw points out how non-strategic site licensing has been for both libraries and publishers.
- “Things have changed since the Elsevier boycott” — Things certainly have changed, meaning that the desktop=Internet correlation is eroding quickly, while mobile=Internet is emerging. At the same time, we understand more completely how entrenched researchers’ citation motivations are, even in the digital age — and, interestingly, they’re more likely to shape the behavior of young scientists.
Where will it all end? It seems to me that the shift away from the desktop is an opportunity for everyone involved to rethink this witch’s stew of tactical compromises. As a recent article in the Atlantic puts it:
The era of the Web browser’s dominance is coming to a close. And the Internet’s founding ideology — that information wants to be free, and that attempts to constrain it are not only hopeless but immoral — suddenly seems naive and stale in the new age of apps, smart phones, and pricing plans.
Wireless, 3G, 4G, and mobile will be the Interwebz of the near future, and already we sense the answers to new questions:
- What is wrong about individuals paying for information they want?
- Do we need to bundle all devices into site licenses and perpetuate the problem, or is there another way?
- Can publishers move to re-engage with readers again?
- Can librarians become guides to information and intellectual partners again in the device-driven age?
- Should publishers just ride out this site licensing motif without damaging their reputation while working hard to move commerce to the emerging ecosystem?
Is the site licensing era something everyone involved would be better off leaving behind over the next decade? If so, how do librarians and publishers execute a strategy that no longer pits them against each other?