Ghostbusters "are you the gatekeeper"?
Navigating the gatekeepers of scholarly communication can be a daunting task for a research society. Image via Meh.

[Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in Choice. Joe wishes to thank Tom Radko, the editor of Choice (and Joe’s former colleague) for permission to reprint it here. The essay itself is based upon a presentation that Joe delivered to the ICOLC conference in Albany, NY on April 27, 2015. The slides for that session can be found here. The slides were in turn summarized on the Scholarly Kitchen. For information on ICOLC—the International Coalition of Library Consortia—see http://icolc.net.]

I wish to describe a situation that I often come across and then try to explain how it came about. What are its implications for scholarly communications and library consortia in particular, and can we project into the future to think about how this situation could evolve?

So here is the situation. Please note that throughout this discussion, I am presenting the case as professional societies see it. I frequently am contacted by these societies to help them with their publishing programs. Most of these societies are in the STM area, but humanists occasionally make that phone call, too. Virtually all of these conversations are about journals, not books or databases. I should add that I am not the only person who gets these calls. There is a whole little industry of consultants who work with professional societies. This is because not-for-profit professional societies often lack experienced business people, so the leadership looks outside when problems arise.

The typical phone call goes like this:

We are a scientific society that has been around for many years. We are the leading society in our area, though most of our members belong to other societies as well. We publish 3 journals, which are among the best in the field (as measured by Impact Factor). These journals used to throw off a healthy profit, but over the past several years the number of subscribers, both individual and institutional, has been dropping. This is problematic for us because we historically used the journals surplus to fund other activities. For example, we use the surplus to provide subsidies to graduate students to attend our annual conference. The journals are still modestly profitable, but when we look at the trends, we can see that in time they will be losing money. We don’t have the resources to subsidize the journals. What should we do?

Now let me back up a bit to provide some caveats and disclosures. First, I am not a librarian. Second, I am not a publisher, though I was trained as one many years ago. I work with organizations on their strategies. At this time most of these organizations are in the not-for-profit area, though I continue to maintain some commercial clients. I don’t have a “philosophy” of publishing or of scholarly communications, and I am skeptical about people who do. My own preference is to study a situation to try to determine how it got where it is and then to come up with ideas about where it can go. This is not an outlook that will help anybody change the world, but it is helpful for people who want to change an organization.

Now we turn back to our professional society. How do we advise this group?

Depending on the ingenuity of the consultant, this could be a short conversation or a long one, a small project or a big one. Let’s imagine a project that goes through every possible step, though in practice almost none ever do.

So the first step is analysis. Why are the individual subscriptions dropping? Here we find that the culprits are libraries and digital technology. This may be a familiar story. A society will recall that 25 years ago membership included a free copy of the society’s flagship journal. It was delivered in print. Many people joined the society to get the free journal and were pleased to receive it by mail every quarter or every month. But then the Internet came along and the society invested in a Web site. Institutional subscriptions began to rise, and that was a very good thing. But the subscribing libraries enabled remote access to the journal in electronic form, so the same researcher could get access to the material from the comfort of his or her home. Many researchers then began to cancel their memberships and personal subscriptions.

There are some important implications in this situation. First, the new library-driven digital service provides increased value for the end-user. That’s a good thing. It also makes the library more valuable to the end-user, and all libraries have that as a goal. Simultaneously it subtracts value from the publisher. Not surprisingly, publishers don’t like this. From the publisher’s point of view, the revenue lost from membership fees and individual subscriptions had to be made up somewhere, and societies turned to libraries to offset the lost revenue. So the burden on library budgets began to rise. This is not the only reason publishers’ prices rose, but it is a major one. In effect, as libraries became more valuable to their users, they wound up paying a handsome price for it.

The growth in the value of institutional subscriptions was a bright spot for our professional society, but it was short-lived. When everybody began to use the Internet, when the virtual world got more and more crowded, the society began to see that its institutional subscriptions started to fall off. This is despite the fact that the journals were able to maintain their Impact Factors. And this is precisely what precipitated the society’s current crisis, the fall-off in library subscriptions. Here there are many culprits. Flat library budgets are the leading villain, but the Big Deals of the large publishers also play a major role, as they take up a huge amount of a library’s budget. Now, this is an area where librarians know a great deal more about the situation than I do, but let me present the situation as societies see it. Society publishers often complain that they cannot even communicate with libraries and library consortia because everyone is too busy negotiating arrangements with the likes of Elsevier and Springer Nature. This is a common complaint among society publishers, and if it is unfounded, there needs to be a communications program to correct this.

Faced with these challenges in the marketplace, many societies then decide that they have to become better publishers. They begin to attend all the trade shows; they bring in a horde of consultants; and the outcome is that you can then see these societies upping their game as journals publishers. To focus on production and workflow, they make arrangements with companies like Allen Press and Cadmus. If they don’t think they have enough marketing clout, they may sign an agreement with Accucoms or PCG. A particularly important decision concerns the software hosting platform for delivering journals online. RFPs go out to firms like HighWire and Atypon. All together, this process takes about 2 years. At the end of it, the society can rightly claim that they have raised the bar: they are indeed better publishers now because of the strategic partnerships they have built.

There is another implication to this, however, and that is the hollowing-out effect. All of these partnerships involve outsourcing; with every new agreement, the society does less and less on its own. It raises the important question of how much a society can outsource and still retain its identity.

Unfortunately, our professional society eventually comes to the conclusion that, for all the effort that was put into it, the partnership and outsourcing plan doesn’t work. Library subscriptions continue to drop. Ten years ago, it may have been a different story, but now simply having good vendors is not enough. I call the situation ten years ago “the HighWire era,” when working with HighWire would almost guarantee the success of a society publisher. But those days are gone. HighWire has lost its centrality because fewer societies can thrive as an independent publisher with a suite of vendor relationships. What societies perceive is that they need to outsource even more; they need some scale to assist in marketing. And the reason for this is that they believe that they are too small to get a library’s attention.

The next step for many societies, especially smaller ones and many in the humanities, is to explore the world of the American university presses. This is a smart move. The American presses (I am specifically excluding Oxford and Cambridge in this argument) collectively publish about 200 journals. About half of the presses publish journals. The largest journal portfolios are found at Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Duke, MIT, and California. All of the presses have a collection of relationships in place with libraries, subscription agents, wholesalers, and vendors of all categories. A professional society can make an arrangement with a university press and immediately see its costs drop and its marketing program intensified. In some instances arrangements with university presses deliver a surplus, sometimes called a royalty, to the societies whose journals they publish. So this could be a good move for the society, and many make it.

Up until a few years ago, I believed that advising a society to work with a university press was about the best advice I could offer except for those societies that were working in STM fields where access to markets in the developing economies was critical. The arguments in favor of a university press are very good. They provide scale, they lend their imprimatur to the society (who wouldn’t want to be published by The University of Chicago Press?), they provide a soup-to-nuts set of services for everything from production to archiving solutions with Portico, and they keep the revenues in the not-for-profit sector. I no longer believe this, however, except in some special cases. The turning point for me was about five years ago, when the American Anthropological Association moved its AnthroSource portal from The University of California Press over to John Wiley. It became clear at that time that the largest publishers were now targeting the journals of the American university press community. Since then we have seen several other instances of poaching at, for example, Chicago and MIT, and all of the journals directors in the university press world know that they are dealing with very stiff competition.

So why would a professional society choose Wiley over California or Elsevier over Chicago? The primary answer is global distribution and the revenue that that distribution provides. The key aspect of that distribution system is that the larger publishers more easily can get the attention of libraries and library consortia. Let me repeat a point I made earlier: If it is not true that small publishers cannot get the attention of library consortia, then there is a profound communications problem that must be addressed.

It hardly comes as a surprise, however, that many societies have reservations about working with large commercial organizations. It can actually be highly amusing to attend a Board meeting of a professional society and listen in on a discussion about working with Elsevier. One would think that there is indeed a devil and the devil speaks Dutch. Some of the remarks about Elsevier, and to a lesser extent about Wiley and Springer Nature, are so over the top that there is no way to respond to them. Every society has some members with deep reservations about commercial publishers. So how does the society deal with this situation, where the American university presses don’t seem to be robust enough and Elsevier and its ilk are unacceptable to some of the members?

Here our intrepid advisor, who has been retained first to do an analysis, second to assist in assembling a stronger set of vendors, third to broker an arrangement with an American university press — our advisor now counsels that the society seek a new arrangement, this one with a larger entity that happens to also be in the not-for-profit area. The fact is that there are not too many of them; as a practical matter the society is pointed to the university presses at Cambridge and Oxford.

Can Cambridge and OUP do the job? Yes, they can. They both have large journals programs (between the two of them they publish around 600-800 journals, a number that is rising). They both have programs in the humanities and the sciences. They both have global footprints. They both have sufficient scale to have competitive technology and to get good pricing from other vendors. And they both are determined to remain competitive in journals publishing. These are not small companies. At roughly $350 million a year, Cambridge is in the ballpark of Sage. OUP is a billion-dollar company. But most importantly, both of these organizations are owned by universities. They are not-for-profit and are aligned with most professional societies in being mission-based. I have personally been very impressed with the competitive zeal that these companies have brought to the journals business in the past couple years.

So it looks as though our society’s problems may have been solved. If the core problem was declining library subscriptions, an arrangement with either OUP or Cambridge can fix that. They are big enough to get the attention of libraries and library consortia, thus they can generate the revenue that the society requires.

For some societies, however, this may not be enough. In some instances OUP and Cambridge find themselves competing with the commercial firms. Occasionally a society desires that an auction be set up. I have run some of these and I will tell you that the bidding can be dizzying. A big auction can include OUP and Cambridge on the not-for-profit side and Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Sage on the commercial side. There have been instances where the large commercial firms make very rich offers to professional societies that are hard to pass up. An example of this is the American Geophysical Society, which went from being a very good independent publisher to signing an agreement with Wiley. A great deal of money changed hands. When a large company wants an agreement with a particular society, they have the ability to outgun the largest of the not-for-profits.

So now we see where this long process was headed. It began when a society reviewed its own accounts and saw that its library subscriptions were declining, and it ended with an agreement with one of the largest commercial firms, which promptly dropped the new journals into a Big Deal or other bundles. Often these arrangements entail stiff price increases to libraries, which in turn yield greater revenue for both the society and the large publisher. The society also gets the benefit of state-of-the-art technology, broader dissemination of the research they publish, and a powerful marketing partner.

The libraries, however, may have found that the balance of power has shifted uncomfortably, as it is very hard to say no to Elsevier and Wiley. In this scenario, it could be said that the society gains through greater revenue, the commercial partner gains through revenue and increasing marketing influence, authors gain through broader dissemination, readers gain through integrated platforms and the near-ubiquity of the content from the large publishers. Libraries, of course, are now footing the bill for the entire enterprise. So perhaps libraries can be said to be the losers in this situation.

Let’s make sure we understand what has happened here. A professional society wants to get its journals into libraries, but finds the gates are closed. So the society ends up making a deal with a large publisher, which serves as the gatekeeper to the library budget. You might ask, What if we gave priority to small publishers? Would that reduce the market clout of the big commercial firms? In other words, libraries have been complicit in the creation of the marketing environment we see today.

If someone wanted to change this situation–for example, to make it friendlier to libraries–where would you begin? Here are some strategies:

*Libraries can organize themselves into consortia to give them greater influence with publishers.

*Support open access publishing.

*Develop publishing centers within libraries.

*Build institutional repositories to create an alternate source for materials.

Let’s look at these in turn.

First, as for library consortia, I know less about them than I would like to; I can only report how publishers see them operating in the marketplace. For small publishers it is harder to sell things to consortia than it is to individual libraries. This then stimulates a small publisher to talk to a larger publisher about a service arrangement. Consortia, in other words, accelerate the process of consolidation among publishers. So we end up with a situation that looks a bit like heavyweight wrestling, with huge consortia on one side battling huge publishers on the other. What the large publishers have perceived is that the small publishers need them now more than ever. A cynic might say that the largest publishers have coopted the consortia.

Open access, on the other hand, is a very different animal. I find it hard to understand why so many librarians support open access publishing because its practical effect is to make libraries less central to scholarly communications. I can make very good arguments for OA publishing, but the benefit seems to me to flow to the publishers, not the authors or libraries. Gold OA provides an additive revenue stream for established publishers, making it possible to monetize many articles that may otherwise have been rejected. The value chain for Gold OA involves funding agencies, authors, and publishers. Librarians play a small role in managing APCs on behalf of their institutions. The larger publishers used to fear OA, but the Gold model has made them into enthusiasts. I don’t see how OA is likely to lessen the claims that the largest publishers have on library budgets. Essentially, these publishers have coopted the Gold OA marketplace, which has boosted their revenues.

Green OA, on the other hand, is more complicated. I will get to that in a minute.

Library publishing is distinct from OA publishing, though virtually all library publishing programs I am aware of are in fact OA. The principal behind library publishing is that one way to diminish the influence of publishers is to compete with them. That’s a good idea. Library publishing, however, then takes a turn that works to its disadvantage, and that is that it gives priority, if not an exclusive relationship, to the faculty of the library’s parent institution. In effect, library publishing is a house shop, the digital equivalent of the old campus print shop. Professor Jones in the department of anthropology writes an article and uploads it to a library program, which may be organized into journals or may be a “megajournal,” that is, encompassing several or all fields. The library publisher takes the manuscript, processes it, and then mounts it on a Web server. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It does not, however, compete with formally published material from established publishers.

Here’s why. While library publishing is a house operation, focusing primarily on the output of its own faculty, traditional publishing seeks authors wherever the very best ones can be found. Traditional publishing, in other words, is editorially focused; library publishing is production-focused. Two good things, but two different things.

It’s instructive to compare university presses to library publishing. University presses publish only a small number of books from their own faculty; typically under 10% of a press’s list consists of books by authors from the parent institution. Presses do this deliberately, as they don’t want to be viewed as a house publishing arm. They then have the material peer-reviewed by experts from a multitude of institutions. The reason they do this is that traditional publishing is primarily about certification, not about dissemination. Library publishing, with its focus on its own faculty, mostly bypasses the certification issue. So we have two rival systems serving different ends. I repeat: there is nothing wrong with this; they can happily coexist. But what library publishing does not do is undermine the influence of the largest commercial publishers.

Institutional repositories represent a truly new platform for scholarly communications. I don’t know of any large institution that does not have an IR. My understanding is that they have not lived up to their promise, at least if one looks at the paper that SPARC commissioned from Raym Crow many years ago. (You can find Raym’s piece here.) Raym argued that IRs could become alternatives to digital collections from established publishers. That hasn’t happened. For the most part IRs have become the place to deposit unconventional documents. Here again there is nothing wrong with this. It simply is not a competitive challenge to the established publishers.

Could Green OA change that? This will be hard, but it’s not impossible. The U.S. government has a Green policy, so the article have to be made available somewhere. Libraries are one candidate. The publishers have organized CHORUS precisely to retain control of their publications even if they are OA. PubMed Central is likely to grow; whether or not it morphs into PubFed Central, as many wiseacres call it, which is the publishers’ worst nightmare, is yet to be seen.

I suspect that IRs are not likely to be significant players in Green OA for technological reasons. Even now the software for most IRs is licensed from third parties, Digital Commons in particular. If Green OA became a bigger thing, as it might, then it is likely that commercial centralized services will be developed that will have the benefits of scale and access to capital markets for development. Perhaps the emergent model will be that of some of the portfolio companies of Von Holtzbrinck’s Digital Science, ReadCube and FigShare in particular. Digital Science is investing money in companies that outsource library functions; in effect, they see a trend for libraries to be hollowed out just as independent publishers have been. My crystal ball tells me that IRs will be of interest primarily on a local level and mostly for undergraduate documents.

So is this a gloomy outlook or a cheerful one? It depends. On the cheerful side, we would cite the following:

  • The current situation lends itself to scale, consolidation, and operating efficiencies
  • The current arrangement also reduces transaction costs (fewer customers) and enables significant investment in technology
  • The current arrangement has driven down the cost per article (even while it has substantially increased total costs)
  • More material is available to researchers than ever before (we should not overlook this)

The gloomy side of this is as follows:

  • Publishers exploit their size and drive up prices
  • Large established publishers effectively “own” library budgets and thus block attempts to reach out to new suppliers (because there is no money left)
  • The current system lends itself to further consolidation and more clout for the largest publishers
  • The marketplace dominance of the largest publishers effectively reduces competition and suppresses innovation

If you take the gloomy view, what is a library’s options? The most important thing is to avoid the devil’s bargain in which an organization seeks reductions in transaction and administrative costs and pays for them by inadvertently granting a company with a monopoly gateway that can be used to influence the structure of the marketplace. On the horizon we have the GOBI service, which is a monopoly in the making. Today it is an excellent tool for reducing costs, tomorrow it could become a dominant gatekeeper that could reshape much of the value chain for scholarly communications. Libraries may wish to have a plan to increase, not decrease, the number of suppliers and force them to compete with each other, even as libraries make a point of keeping all these suppliers alive by apportioning their budgets across the entire field.

But most importantly libraries and consortia could give first priority to the smallest publishers. There is a cost to this in having to apply more administrative attention, but it is an investment in maintaining control of the marketplace. My example of the small society publisher should be taken to heart. If that publisher could find an audience with libraries and consortia, then there would be no reason for it to cut a deal with John Wiley or Elsevier. Libraries could change the structure of the business of scholarly communications if they wanted to, but first they must understand how they have been complicit in establishing the very system that seems to penalize them so much.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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Discussion

27 Thoughts on "Libraries and Consortia in the Context of a Publisher’s Strategy"

Joe, this post should be required reading for the field. Nicely done!
I’ve noticed that larger publishers employ various techniques for maintaining their dominance while negotiating with libraries. One strategy is to get proposals into the hands of librarians early and actively engage in long, tiresome negotiations, often involving numerous successive proposals that inch their way slowly toward a deal. This technique both ties up the time of the negotiating librarian (more often, a large committee of librarians) and ties their hands for making other licensing decisions until the larger decisions are finalized. Some libraries have moved to hire professional negotiators to work on their behalf, although, as you write, this act outsources yet another library function.

It seems to me that the role of the library is to make stuff available and not attempt to control the market. As we have seen, attempts to control a market usually fail. These attempts fail in the commercial marketplace witness Hunt’s attempt to control the silver market and in the governmental arena – USSR’s attempt to control the shoe market!

So the hypothetical case is solved within the market via a relationship with a commercial publisher.

Joe, what was the response from delegates at the ICOLC conference in April to your call-to-action for consortia to give first priority to the smaller publishers? Have library consortia managers shown any sign of change in behaviour from focussing on just the “Big Deals”?

It’s difficult to generalize about a group as diverse as the ICOLC participants, and in any event my contact there was brief. I am not aware of any changes in consortia behavior. Some members of the audience expressed resentment about the idea that they were complicit in the “greed” of the publishers.

It is not the responsibility of libraries to ensure the financial stability of societies or small presses, it is our responsibility to meet the information demands of our customers. Libraries work closely with academic departments to ensure that we provide access to the publications critical to the research and instruction needs of the faculty and graduate students. We keep close watch on the use statistics to determine what we retain and what we cancel. It’s about providing fast and efficient access, it’s always about access.

Excellent post, Joe, and I’m recommending it to all my library colleagues. A few responses to some of your points form the library perspective (apologies for the longish block quotes, but hopefully they’ll be helpful in context):

Society publishers often complain that they cannot even communicate with libraries and library consortia because everyone is too busy negotiating arrangements with the likes of Elsevier and Springer Nature. This is a common complaint among society publishers, and if it is unfounded, there needs to be a communications program to correct this.

I think the societies have a mistaken understanding of what’s stopping us from entertaining their offers. It’s not that we’re so busy negotiating big deals with big publishers–those deals are very important for most of us, but we don’t spend a ton of time negotiating them anymore. The problem is that those deals soak up such large percentages of our budgets that we no longer select journals the way we used to. Back in the day, we used to actively seek out good journals that offered good value for money. Today, we mostly subscribe to the journals that our faculty tell us they must have, and we spend a lot of our time figuring out what we can get away with canceling in order to make room for those titles. In that context, listening to a sales pitch from a publisher (whatever its size) is not a particularly good investment of time. The best library marketing in the world isn’t going to help you when the library’s choices are being driven entirely (or mostly) by explicit faculty demand. Your marketing effort can be more fruitfully directed at faculty.

So why would a professional society choose Wiley over California or Elsevier over Chicago? The primary answer is global distribution and the revenue that that distribution provides. The key aspect of that distribution system is that the larger publishers more easily can get the attention of libraries and library consortia.

I think you’re right about the impact of getting one’s journal acquired by Wiley or Elsevier, but again, I really don’t think it’s because doing so makes it easier to get our attention. It’s because doing so will get you into Big Deal packages that many of us literally can’t afford to cancel (because if we did so, subscribing to only the highest-demand titles from the package would cost us more than the package itself does).

The libraries, however, may have found that the balance of power has shifted uncomfortably, as it is very hard to say no to Elsevier and Wiley. In this scenario, it could be said that the society gains through greater revenue, the commercial partner gains through revenue and increasing marketing influence, authors gain through broader dissemination, readers gain through integrated platforms and the near-ubiquity of the content from the large publishers. Libraries, of course, are now footing the bill for the entire enterprise. So perhaps libraries can be said to be the losers in this situation.

Though here, it’s important to note that what “libraries can be said to be the losers” means is actually that readers are the losers. The library itself doesn’t care what it has access to; it’s the faculty and students who depend on the library that care. So the ecology you have described may be one that greatly benefits faculty as authors, even as it ultimately hurts them as readers. And it may be an uncomfortable (for librarians) truth that faculty care more about their own well-being as authors than as library patrons. Too bad for the students.

First, as for library consortia, I know less about them than I would like to; I can only report how publishers see them operating in the marketplace. For small publishers it is harder to sell things to consortia than it is to individual libraries. This then stimulates a small publisher to talk to a larger publisher about a service arrangement. Consortia, in other words, accelerate the process of consolidation among publishers.

You may find it interesting that I made a very similar argument about book-buying consortia 15 years ago in a presentation titled “Discounts in Our Pockets, Bullet Holes in Our Feet: Why Vendor Consolidation Is Our Fault.” I don’t think it was ever published. A lot of my colleagues didn’t like it.

Open access, on the other hand, is a very different animal. I find it hard to understand why so many librarians support open access publishing because its practical effect is to make libraries less central to scholarly communications.

Two reasons, I think:

1. Mission. For many of us in libraries, OA is worth pursuing because of the good it can do in the world, even if it undermines certain aspects of the library’s traditional role in the scholcomm ecosystem.

2. Shut up. We don’t talk about unintended consequences of OA. We only talk about intended consequences.

This is a fascinating insight: “The best library marketing in the world isn’t going to help you when the library’s choices are being driven entirely (or mostly) by explicit faculty demand. Your marketing effort can be more fruitfully directed at faculty.”

That would be an interesting marketing effort. The Society would first identify its members at those academic institutions that do not subscribe to (some of?) its journals, then urge them to lobby the library. I wonder how the library would react to this pressure campaign? It does sound like fun.

That would be an interesting marketing effort. The Society would first identify its members at those academic institutions that do not subscribe to (some of?) its journals, then urge them to lobby the library. I wonder how the library would react to this pressure campaign?

There would be nothing new about this; it happens all the time now. Publishers regularly lobby faculty members in the hope that they’ll submit subscription requests to the library. (In the old days, publishers used to provide preprinted request cards for faculty to forward along to their library liaisons.) The way the library responds, typically, is by carefully considering all faculty requests in light of institutional priorities (and, inevitably, campus politics) and then making tough choices between them.

I have spent many years negotiating with societies from Academic Press before it was Elsevier, Chapman & Hall, OUP and Blackwells/then Wiley. I have also written on this for the International Council of Scientific Unions..

I do not understand why Joe should have been advising his clients to an American university press. It must be an American thing. Maybe it is because of the “shared mission” thing. I would suggest that if the society wants efficiency and penetration of the market which (to choose an example of a company I have not worked for) Elsevier have it in abundance.

If a society goes to a publishing partner they are looking for a supplier. They keep control of the ownership, the editorial policies, and, if they have a sensible contract, the pricing. To my mind tyhe big problem with HighWire is that they never managed to create a bundle to sell on behalf of their societies. I know they have tried but it did not materialise. As I understand attrition of revenue and units has been going on for some years. On another poin the big commercial companies tell me that certain not for profits in the same game as publishing partners are undercutting them.

As you see I prefer Rick’s analysis to Joe’s.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think my analysis is contrary to Joe’s. I’m just answering some of the questions he poses about the library perspective on these issues.

The overall picture Joe paints here is accurate, but it lacks some important details. E.g., there is no mention of Project Muse, which was critical to facilitating the transition from print to e-journal publishing for many smaller publishers like Penn State Press, which was the first university press to join Project Muse after it opened itself to journals published by presses other than Johns Hopkins itself. As an entity that was jointly created by a library and press, it had instant credibility and support in the library market, an advantage that should not be underestimated. For any society publisher in the humanities, Project Muse was a better alternative than the commercial giants, and Project Muse did have major international reach. As for library publishing, the mergers of presses and libraries into joint operations make the designation of “library publisher” much more complicated than Joe depicts here; and the one area where library publishers can really challenge commercial publishers is textbook publishing for the home campus. Joe does not mention this at all. And IR’s do serve a very useful purpose for authors. I have over 80 articles I’ve written and published in multiple places all available at Penn State’s IR, which makes it very convenient as a single repository for my publications easily locatable by search engines.

I’d like to see students in library school reading this post. I have a few short comments.

Consortia: I’ve been a part of a couple library consortia, and I was involved the decision making process at CARLI regarding what offers and resources to pursue. The problem here is that consortia cannot afford to pursue often lengthy negotiations for resources that will only benefit a small number of members. A large consortium might include a handful of R1 libraries, a bunch at the masters level, and a large number of liberal arts colleges and even community colleges. In order for a deal with a small publisher to be worthwhile, probably all of the R1s and masters colleges would have to be interested, and library budgets are just too bad for that to happen. A lot of the smaller universities are in the consortium for databases, not for journal subscriptions.

OA and libraries: I feel largely the same way about this. I think librarians who argue for OA are more interested in the profession’s core values than the library’s strategic position in the university. They also probably think libraries’ days as resource acquiring bodies are numbered. If the whole library budget is going to a consortium, a few different parts of EBSCO’s business (EBSCOhost, EBSCONET, Gobi), and a couple journal publishers, I’m sure some universities will try to outsource that. So many librarians would prefer to side with OA, even if it would diminish their role somewhat.

IRs: I think IRs present a couple problems. One is discoverability. Google and Google scholar likely drive a lot of traffic to articles in an IR. Library discovery tools, on the other hand, find very little of that. With IRs and hybrid OA journals continuing to grow, it will be interesting to see how discovery improves. I believe there are some companies working to provide centralized repository services as well as more robust OA discovery services. I also suspect that more faculty will be attracted to services like ResearchGate, and more authors will simply ignore their author agreements and post the version of record even if not allowed to do so on a commercial site.

I think there are some additional nuances worth pointing out in this discussion. First, societies sometimes want, and sometimes are obliged, to go after certain things from a publisher that go beyond publishing services, strictly speaking. Sometimes they have managed their affairs quite badly, and need to be bailed out. Some just have got used to receiving periodically an influx of cash whenever their contracts come up.

Anyone who thinks that gross venality is a fault limited to publishing outfits in Western Europe, should try dealing with a large medical society sometime. They are known to sell to the highest bidder of what are euphemistically called “signing bonuses.” This is a large sum of money — a big scientific society can get seven or even eight figures — spread over the lifetime of the contract. (In less delicate circles, this would be called a “bribe.”) How publishers make a return on these deals is anyone’s guess. Price increases are one way. Some may simply be loss leaders. Another popular method is to shed employees.

Over the years, this practice has succeeded in degrading the entire environment — societies become more mercenary, the big publishers are able to buy up more of the market while decreasing the quality of their services, and prices for libraries go up steadily, forcing increasing numbers of cancellations to less highly prized, or less expensive, titles. How can you get 30 humanities journals and 50 social science titles when a single neurology journal costs as much as a Lexus?

Secondly, the point about consortia sales is looking far less solid as every year goes by. As many societies have come to realize, the financial value of being part of a big publisher’s Big Deal, is not necessarily that great. The publisher’s pitch to a big consortium is based on a significant volume discount. This can often translate into pennies on the dollar for Society X’s journal. Sometimes Society X does less well under this scenario than it did when it was selling stand-alone subscriptions.

From the librarian’s standpoint, the cost-controlling aspect of the Big Deal that was part of its original promise has not always been realized. As a result there are a number of institutions that now forbid themselves from signing these deals. I believe MIT is one example. There are others, and it will be important if this becomes a growing trend.

University presses such as ours, and the others mentioned by Joe, have seen defections of prominent journals from the big players to smaller American university presses, based primarily on values that go beyond the financial. Editorial and intellectual rigor, high production standards, and congruence of mission are all things that are much more important to academic societies than discussion in places like SK and elsewhere would suggest.

That these journals have gone to smaller presses without loss of income to the society is proof that there are alternatives to simply capitulating to the monolithic model offered by big commercial publishing. “Economies of scale” sound great in theory, but the practice tends to be that they only work in the interests of one party. The benefits of scale rarely accrue in any meaningful way to either society partners or libraries.

Michael Magoulias
University of Chicago Press Journals

This is a very good comment, but I would myself eschew the word “bribe.” It’s the marketplace, not a bribe. It is neither good nor bad. It’s just what we have to work with.

Both Joe and Rick have put forward a great and complementary analysis of the challenge for university presses (other than OUP and CUP) in this space. When I was interviewing for my position at UC Press five years ago I had a lot of questions about how UCP could compete again with the likes of the large commercials I came from, and the honest answer is that we can’t. Joe’s point about global distribution and sales is a key factor, but the other equally significant one is the financial offers. The large journal publishers are simply able to offer above and beyond to attract high profile, high impact content. (At my previous employer this was a deliberate strategy, the theory being that enough “must have” content in a package would make it impossible for libraries to cancel their big deals and all of the titles they didn’t really want.) That’s not to say that these publishers don’t provide excellent services for their society partners – they do (so much so that I have recommended to at least one existing UCP publishing partner that they accept an offer which I believed to be in their interests). There is still a lot that traditional US university presses have to offer the right journals and the right societies, and it’s incumbent upon us to redefine where our unique contributions add value in a very different ecosystem.

One journal with which I have direct experience (because I helped get it launched) is Philosophy and Public Affairs. It is not a society journal, but was initiated by a handful of scholars and first published by Princeton UP where I was an editor at the time. Later it went to Johns Hopkins UP. The service provided by both presses was excellent, and the subscription price quite reasonable. Since being taken over by a commercial publisher, first Blackwell and then Wiley, the service deteriorated and the price escalated. No one, as far as I can tell, benefited from that change.

Sandy, I just think that the issues and decisions for any individual society are a lot more complex. There’s any awful lot that could be improved across the entire ecosystem as Joe’s post and these comments make clear, but I just don’t think it’s as simple as “university presses good, commercial publishers bad”.

At the most recent ALPSP conference Wiley-Blackwell presented an absolutely fascinating slide which showed, on the evidence of the (literally) hundreds of learned societies with whom W-B deal every year, that the overall financial package was ultimately the determinant factor in the publication decisions of learned societies in at least 95% of cases. Now there will be those, particularly smaller societies in the arts and social sciences with much greater crossover between the society executive and journal editorial boards, that belong to the camp of the other 5%, but the overall context is starkly clear. I don’t think that at this distance of time I am betraying any great secrets when I mention that at Cambridge (for whom I used to work) during the 1990s we raised our journal prices less than any other major journal provider, as all public statistics showed: we lost more society journals during that decade than any of our competitors. Joe is kind enough to highlight how both Cambridge and Oxford have transformed their journals offer since those days, and I would completely support Alison’s contention that the current situation is far more subtle than a matter of ‘commercial bad, UP good’, a contention that becomes even more telling once you leave the fifty states…Sandy’s point about the ‘deterioriation’ suffered by Philosophy and Public Affairs is emphatically not the perception of a librarian or a scholar in (say) Germany or Australia or Japan, many of whom would, with the best will in the world, have been encountering the journal for the first time in its new Wiley-Blackwell guise.

I never meant to make any such simplistic claim that commercial = bad and university press = good, but I would like to challenge Richard on his claim as to librarians or scholars only getting to know about Philosophy and Public Affairs after Wiley/Blackwell took it over. First, in its print only form in its early years, I know that it had a wide international circulation because I paid close attention to the subscription list. E.g., I can tell you that one early subscriber was a justice on the supreme court of South Africa. When P&PA moved to JHUP, it became part of Project Muse, which has wide international reach, no less so than Wiley/Blackwell for a journal in the humanities.

Sandy, I think I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. There will always be individual subscriber exceptions (and there were arguably even more in the print era), and Project Muse palpably has powerful international reach, but examination of the regional sales profiles of all of the major ‘commercial’ providers, plus OUP and CUP, makes the greater global penetration of the latter cohort pretty clear (especially into Asia-Pacific). And it’s that global penetration (and the financial benefits that it brings) that, rightly or wrongly, has proved to be a major attraction for societies seeking the optimal publishing berth, even if, as Joe’s article makes clear, this has come at a considerable cost for certain major market sectors.

I won’t disagree with what you claim here insofar as it is a generalization about STEM journal publishing and scientific societies. I will maintain that, for the humanities and certainly for some individual titles like P&PA, the large commercial publishers do NOT automatically do a better job, and I would make that counter-assertion with respect to books in the humanities as well. At the two presses where I worked we were well represented in the Asia/Pacific region by book vendors like East/West Books.

American Geophysical Society – > American Geophysical *Union*

I really interesting article, thanks!

” I find it hard to understand why so many librarians support open access publishing because its practical effect is to make libraries less central to scholarly communications. I can make very good arguments for OA publishing, but the benefit seems to me to flow to the publishers, not the authors or libraries. ”

Libraries want to ensure (a) primarily their uses have access to the content they need (b) content reaches a broad of audience. As such i don’t think making themselves ‘central to scholarly communications’ is their primary aim, especially when in this context we are referring really to just paying the bills (heck, the procurement office could do that).

Secondly, I would argue the main group who benefit from OA are readers/researchers, and secondary, authors (whose work may well be more widely ready, and they themselves can easily redistribute).

Chris

This is a very interesting article and discussion. As a Medical Librarian in a teaching-community hospital environment, I can see how such trends have affected my libraries (I have two–as a solo librarian; yes, we are spread that thin in many areas of the country). So, I won’t say you’re wrong, and as much as I’d like to push back and support the small society journals and avoid the Big Boys, it’s not going to happen. Budgets are tight and getting tighter–and I consider my employer to be very generous and supportive of library resources, UNLIKE many hospital administrations which view the library as cost/liability instead of a loss preventer that they are (different discussion!).
Also, I note there is no mention of the unreliable web presence of many of these smaller publishers. I’ve canceled journal titles (a particular rheumatology journal comes to mind) because their “online subscription” only provides for 2 users. This is ridiculous today. Others do not allow electronic transmittal of their content due to “copyright” (how’s that again?! –and that’s also true of some of the Big Boys, but I digress), but mostly I have become frustrated with the lack of tech support at these societies. Frankly, the only society journal (IMO) that has good tech support and customer service is NEJM.
But lastly, there is the elephant in the room that nobody’s really talking about: the practicalities of reality. To use my own experience: I have to cover 2 libraries in 2 different locations. I service almost 900 physicians, similar number of nurses and all the ancillary staff at both hospitals. I do not have time to address and cope with the idiosyncrasies of many smaller publishers; the username/ password manifest alone would be insane!
All that said, I decry the muscle (read bully) power of the large publishing houses. You jest about how these houses are referred to, but you are not on the wrong end of this unfettered capitalism. The big houses can (and do) have lousy customer service/tech support as well. In many ways, librarians are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place: limited or non-existant support staff, diminishing budget dollars, increasing demand on the part of the patrons for easier access/instant access, and publishers who either jack up their prices to unconscionable levels or who offer lousy support (or both–I’ve had and have both). What’s a mother to do?
But mostly I’m concerned about the independent voices being silenced in medical research. Pay to play is another topic, but it seems to me that the publishers (at least the big houses) are getting extremely wealthy indeed on the backs of researchers and medical libraries (what was Elsevier’s profit recently–something like 400%?). This well will run dry at some point… and then what? Where are the checks and balances today? We already see schlock medical “research” being published–and OA journals are some of the worst offenders. The independent societies were much better at keeping tighter editorial control (not always, speaking generally)–I worry about losing that editorial oversight as they slash staff to cut costs, and the vicious spiral continues…

Thank you, Joe. This is a wonderful read straight through all the comments and something I am sharing with all our editorial and production staff. One wee edit, “Cadmus” became “Cenveo Publisher Services” in 2007!

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