What do you get when you cross a Big Deal with the library funding crisis? A Bigger Deal.
This thought (uttered while laughing all the way to the gallows) was prompted by a recent interview with the CEO of Springer, Derk Haank, in which he provocatively (deliberately provocatively?) announced that the serials crisis was over and that the Big Deal should get the credit for solving the problem.
Reading this, one could not help but imagine a chorus of voices saying, “How’s that again?” That the serials crisis is over is news to many, particularly librarians who are straining to meet the needs of their constituencies.
Clearly there are competing narratives here and, paraphrasing Nelson Mandela, where you stand depends on where you sit.
I am not going to rehash these competing narratives, as everyone involved with scholarly publishing has heard them many times. What does interest me is how things are likely to turn out. In my view, the rich will get richer, while the poor will either — in a Swiftian moment — get swallowed up by the rich or take the leap into author-pays open access publishing.
Let’s imagine a library with a serials budget that up until a few years ago seemed to be appropriate for its institution. By “appropriate” I don’t mean that the librarians could acquire everything they wanted (that would never be the case) but that faculty and students alike were not terribly distressed by the size and form of the collection. But then came the collapse of financial markets and the Great Recession, which resulted in serious cuts in library budgets.
Can the library still build an adequate collection?
While this is happening, the prices of Big Deals continue to rise, the prices of other materials rise, and new products are introduced to the marketplace, making demands on already shrinking budgets. Obviously some things cannot be purchased. While librarians will plead for lower prices, for the most part their cries are unheeded by the bigger publishers with the biggest of the Big Deals. This is because it is in the economic interest of the Big Deal purveyors to put the libraries under terrible pressure.
Sounds nasty and makes no sense? Nasty, yes, but logical. The library has to make cuts. What gets cut? The process to make cuts is complicated and as much art as science, but the basic outline is that items that are deemed less essential are cut first. Some of those less essential items, however, are tucked inside of Big Deals, where they can’t easily be touched without canceling the entire package. Since the Big Deals come from the biggest publishers and include some of the most essential material, the Big Deals are virtually invulnerable to cuts. This should not be a surprise, as this is one of the reasons the Big Deals were conceived of in the first place.
So let’s cut first the single-title publisher and then the publications of small publishers, including professional societies. Let’s trim everywhere we can. In the end, what is left standing are the very packages that many librarians believe caused the problem in the first place.
What happens to the journals that are cut — or, more to the point, what does the publisher of such journals believe is the best action to take before the cuts become drastic? One option is to cut a deal with a Big Deal publisher. Then the publication will continue to survive, tucked inside a large package; and its inclusion will be part of the rationale for annual price increases for the Big Deal. The Big Deal keeps getting bigger.
Or a publisher might choose to move to an author-pays open access model, something on the order of Hindawi or PLoS or the new services announced by Sage and Wiley. The author-pays model has the virtue of not taxing a library’s budget, though it nonetheless derives its revenue from the research community. And when a journal goes OA, it frees up some money — which libraries will then use to pay for the growing Big Deals.
Of course, creating a successful author-pays OA service is not a slam dunk, either.
In my discussions with librarians, I am generally not persuaded that they understand the nature and structure of the economic system in which they operate. They tend to think of the principal economic relationship as being between the library, which acts on behalf of its patrons, and publishers. This is incorrect. The key relationship is between the successful (and often large) publishers and the less successful. The question is how to grab more of a shrinking pie. The Big Deal is a means to that end. I am reminded of the tale of two men who are pursued by a bear. One man says, “Can you outrun a bear?” The other man says, “I don’t have to; I only have to outrun you.”
The challenge for smaller publishers and librarians alike is to find a way to improve their leverage in the marketplace. Author-pays OA may help some publishers, though it is noteworthy that many such services are now part of the programs of major organizations: Springer, AIP, Wiley, Nature, and Sage.
But before you can find a solution to a problem, you have to understand it first.