When I served as a collection development librarian between 2000 and 2006, I was involved in three sequential journal cancellations. The first year was easy — cancel paper, duplicates, and obscure foreign titles. Year Two was more of a challenge. By Year Three, it was hard work.
This process is still going on, and fortunately, I am no longer part of it. No one gets thanked for canceling journals.
As part of the program to educate our faculty, we took our message on the road and visited each department in our college. We went in twos, and I was partnered with the head of access services. His role? Advertise new services for faculty (extended loan periods, electronic reserves, and book delivery straight to faculty offices!) My role? Tell them about what we needed to cut and lecture them on the consequence of their publishing behavior on the library.
In order to make my point about the disparity in journal prices, I would bring props to these meetings, illustrating how much content they received from a year’s worth of PNAS, say (I had to use a book cart for this subscription) compared to an expensive commercial niche journal. The journals would be chosen purposefully because my talk was as much theatrics as it was about message — some journals cost a lot of money; we can no longer subscribe to them all; it’s time to make hard choices. In retrospect, the message hasn’t changed.
I succeeded in delivering this message to every department I visited, and with each succeeding performance my confidence grew. I was going to help change scholarly publishing in my college, and help herald in a new era of responsible publishing. SPARC would be proud of me.
And then I was taken to task. At one meeting, a scientist stopped me mid-performance. My comparisons were not only wrong, they were misleading. Some of my journals published many more articles than their competitors; others levied page charges to authors, thus artificially lowering the prices paid by libraries; some offered publications to society members. Therefore, I should understand that libraries subscribers are only one part — albeit an important one — in the economics of a scholarly journal.
This scientist (renowned in his field) was kind in his delivery, but the message resonated throughout his peers. I learned that if I were going to convince scientists to change their behavior, I needed to be upfront about the facts I present and about the facts I left out. Librarians, after all, are supposed to work in the faculty’s best interests, not in their own.
In his piece, “The Library: Three Jeremiads,” Harvard University Librarian Robert Darnton mourns the decline of the scholarly press, the spiraling of journal prices, and the tenuous relationship the academic library has entered with the Google Book scanning project, a position Rick Anderson critiqued in a prior post. For the very same reason that I was critiqued for cherry-picking facts and presenting a narrow view of publishing economics, it’s important to clarify Darnton’s argument about journal prices.
For those of us who have been in the library, publishing, or higher-education profession for even a short period of time, Darnton’s victim narrative is formulaic:
- Present the fact that journal prices have been escalating far faster than the general rate of inflation
- Create a caricature of all publishers as commercial behemoths concerned only with profit
- Select the most-expensive journal as an example of corporate greed (i.e. Brain Research)
- Bemoan the library as victim of this relationship
- Finally, present open access as a unified solution to the crisis
You’ll find this narrative almost everywhere you look in the library literature, and I am very familiar with it because I used it frequently myself.
In previous posts, I argued that the Consumer Price Index was a very bad comparison for measuring the purchasing power of libraries, that journals are the wrong indicator for growth, and that describing the present situation as a “crisis” is both inaccurate and unhelpful for finding real solutions.
In this post, I will argue that the price of a journal is a very bad indicator of value to an institution.
- Tetrahedron Letters
- Tetrahedron: Asymmetry
- Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry
- Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters
And with this combined collection of journals, Darnton also omits the fact that he is quoting a combined subscription price ($39K). I am not going to defend this price nor the act of offering a bundled subscription — Elsevier can defend themselves. I do however take issue that Darnton compares this five-part chemistry journal to an average humanities journal.
ISI has not finished indexing the Tetrahedron collection completely for 2010, but these five journals have published nearly 6,000 articles in 176 issues during the past year. In comparison, most humanities journals publish 16-20 articles in just four quarterly issues. Divide publication numbers into the yearly subscription price and you get about $6/article for Tetrahedron and between $15-$19/article for the average humanities journal. That expensive behemoth starts looking like a good deal.
Now, I didn’t include the fact that many humanities professors purchase their own print copies of journals, thus inflating the total institutional price of having access to a journal. Nor did I mention that the library often pays again for online access to humanities journals through bundles like JSTOR or Project MUSE — costs that were not added to Darnton’s figures. When normalized for the size of these journals, Tetrahedron is no longer the poster child of poor value.
Cost per download analysis often tell the same story: large expensive science journals are cheaper than small humanities journals.
After lamenting the state of the Harvard library budget — arguably the most enviable collections budget in the world — Darnton describes steps that his university has taken to find a new sustainable economic future. One of these solutions is the Compact for Open-Access Publishing (COPE), a compact that “could save billions of dollars in library budgets.” It is not clear, however, if Darnton considers Harvard’s libraries in those that could save. Of the nearly 6,000 articles in the Tetrahedron bundle, Harvard researchers authored 22 of them in 2010. Given that COPE will pay $3,000 for each article out of this fund, paying for open access would cost Harvard $66K in 2010, $27K more than its subscription price.
Given the guidelines for the COPE signatories, many of whom refuse to cover publication charges when the author has a grant, libraries could technically save money if they require their faculty to pay more of the freight of scholarly publishing, although this is simply a form of shifting — not diminishing — costs. And holding library funds in reserve for when authors or their grants cannot pay may be doing more economic harm than good.
The last few years have not been good for academic libraries and I, like most in higher education, feel their pain. Yet, distorting the facts in order to present the situation in a simplified perpetrator-victim narrative is simply not helpful. It’s time for the library community to write a new story.