We keep hearing that the current system of scholarly publishing is fiscally “unsustainable.” This assertion is generally greeted with acceptance, as if we all agree both that this is the case and that we have a common understanding of what “unsustainable” means — up to and including the statement’s implications and its reflection on us, the people running the system today.
What is truly driving the impression of unsustainability? And why do we pass over this assertion with such ease?
Last year, a study showed that the fiscal challenges in scholarly publishing are mainly volume-based (more is being published) rather than price-based (per-title prices actually fell meaningfully between 2005 and 2010). More scientists are working, they are producing more papers, publication events are more highly valued in academic careers than ever, and publishers are responding by launching more titles. Paying for more subscriptions (or paying for APCs) costs libraries money, and they don’t have enough to spend for all the new titles and articles given trends in library funding as a percentage of university budgets.
Why this is the case bears some examination. Since the 1980s, library budgets have decreased as a share of university budgets by about half, from 3.7% in the early 1980s to under 2% now. However, library budgets have increased during the same time in dollar terms, primarily because the price of going to college has increased by 500% for an equivalent timeframe.
The result is that, rather than being 500% larger, university library budgets are 250% larger, which just about covers the costs associated with all the new and expanded journals they have to buy. The key term here is, “just about.”
The marginal deficit between what’s being produced and what’s affordable is what people generally mean when they use the term “unsustainable.” And, if current trends continue and nothing changes in response to these trends, the term is fairly accurate. Furthermore, if we change the wrong things in response, the situation could become worse.
One thing that has changed is that some libraries have diverted a portion of their budgets to open access (OA) funding, which takes more money out of the subscription pool without eliminating subscription costs or demand for the associated publications. The gamble here seems to be that if enough libraries support OA with small money, the tables may turn, and subscriptions will go away or shrink radically in price. This is not a wager I would make if I were in the position to do so, especially because the volume of published research is still increasing, and subscription journals are absorbing a good deal of this.
Subscriptions are more affordable generally because they spread costs across many more purchasers than OA models, which concentrate purchasers. Concentrated purchasing is less sustainable. One change over the past 15 years has been a greater concentration of subscription costs with libraries, as site licenses shifted many departmental and individual subscriptions into library budgets.
Concentrated buying tends to be more unsustainable, because if one purchaser leaves the market unexpectedly, prices for the other purchasers increase. In extreme cases, the remaining purchasers can see their costs skyrocket, or the providers can be left high and dry. In something akin to a monopsony, one large buyer could come to dominate any particular OA market, much as the state of Texas came to dominate the US textbook market due to its concentrated buying power. This was rectified in 2011, when Texas passed a law that took power away from the state board and split it among the state’s school districts. Suddenly, Texas lost much of its ability to demand editorial concessions from textbook publishers. Having more diversity in the customer base is good for editorial independence.
The “unsustainable” perception has many layers in the academic sphere, as much of what is going on in academia also seems unsustainable presently.
Tuition and fees. In the US, the trends around tuition and fees seems unsustainable. These have increased at an incredible pace over the past 30 years. Parents are already re-evaluating the benefits of university brand compared to university value. High tuitions balanced lackluster salaries for the majority of Americans have created a situation where food pantries are now emerging on college campuses. The higher education bubble seems closer to popping, or rapidly deflating, with each passing year.
Soft money trends. The lifestyle of the researcher may be unsustainable. I recently shared a flight with a researcher whose entire career consists of chasing soft money. He may complete the next 20-25 years of his career and never reach the end of the soft money train, but he may not. He, and thousands like him, are exhausted, fed up, and feeling scammed by a system that promised them rewards for their brilliance and dedication but instead set them on a Sisyphean quest for soft money rewards.
Librarians as purchasers. The “librarian as purchaser” is potentially an unsustainable position, especially if the small bets on OA mentioned above pay off, so to speak. Should OA ever come to dominate scholarly publishing, the role of the librarian — already perceived mainly as a purchasing agent for institutions — becomes all the more tenuous, and potentially unsustainable. Whether OA gains market dominance or not, the consolidation in the publishing world points to a future where far fewer contracts exist between institutions and publishers, another factor that could threaten this librarian role.
Government research budgets. Already, sequestration and other austerity measures have given research budgets in the US and Europe unflattering haircuts. If certain political ideas take hold, euphemisms like “accountability” and “practical research” may constrain pure research budgets even further. This trend also has some concerned that pure, basic research itself may be unsustainable, as universities become more like businesses and research becomes more about producing marketable products rather than fundamental insights.
Allow me to list a couple of other examples of “unsustained” items, to zero-in on what “unsustainable” might more accurately mean.
The middle-class in America. Shockingly, the American middle-class now appears to be unsustainable. This wasn’t the case until relatively recently, but the trends underlying this are 20-30 years old. Due to active dismantling through changes in taxation favoring elites, wage stagnation, public apathy, and other factors, the middle-class is clearly threatened and may be unsustainable unless things change.
Effective vaccine programs. Vaccination, one of the two major public health transformations in human history (the other being clean drinking water) is proving “unsustainable” in the face of public health diseducation by misguided semi-famous people and fear-mongering opportunists. Too many people, misled into thinking vaccines are something to fear, have been hiding out inside the herd effect, which is starting to lose its efficacy. Measles, once thought eradicated as recently as 2000, has cropped up again in New England and New York City, with more cases certain to follow.
The main point of all these examples is that nothing is sustainable if you neglect basic maintenance and funding. In the case of research publications, universities and others have accepted funding for conducting research while decreasing funding as a percentage of their budgets for subscriptions to published research. This is the fundamental breakdown in the economics of research publication. A system that increases supply while underfunding demand is predictably unsustainable.
Talking about the current system of academic publishing being “unsustainable” in the same way we talk about the weather being warm or the sky being blue — as if the situation is merely an observation and not something we have some control over or have had a hand in allowing come to pass — isn’t to me the right way to talk about it.
Maybe, instead of blithely stating that scholarly publishing is unsustainable, a more useful and addressable description of our current reality is that we may be working inside a system that we are failing to sustain.