Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Ann Okerson, Yale University

1.   What impact do publishers' current policies on pricing and provision of scientific journals, particularly "big deal schemes", have on libraries and the teaching and research communities they serve?

  The notion of the "Big Deal" was coined a few years ago in an article in the online magazine D-LIB by Kenneth Frazier, a leading American research library director. Since its introduction, the term has been used in many different and often mutually contradictory ways. The most worrisome is one sometimes heard when the term is most loosely used: to express antagonism towards one or two of the largest commercial publishers now producing scientific journals.

  The "Big Deal" is best defined as any arrangement by which, instead of purchasing access to electronic versions of journals to which a library has already or previously subscribed in print, it secures access in addition to ALL the titles of a given publisher, possibly at a small surcharge over the cost of the institution's prior print subscriptions. Publishers offer this kind of arrangement for a variety of reasons, including the management efficiencies of not dealing with individual title choices and not least the marketing appeal of seeming to offer something for nothing—access to all those journals one never subscribed to before. Of course, if a library did not subscribe to those titles because its users genuinely had no use for them, the benefits would be limited. However, the larger package has been often seen to have high value for readers—and for their libraries. For the reader, a large amount of access is added; many of the titles that libraries never used in print become well used electronically (showing that librarians' judgments about what titles are read are not necessarily perfect—or perhaps that their budgets simply cannot afford all the desired print journal titles); electronic linking between journals becomes much more transparent and convenient for readers. For the library, purchasing a package can save title-by-title processing and invoicing, which is no small advantage.

  Where the above enhancements are benefits from the "Big Deal," this kind of deal has a kind of utility that cannot be underestimated. In sum, it has the potential to bring down transaction costs, simplify and improve access for readers, and simplify workflows internally for library staff. It is probably cheaper, if one calculates systemwide costs, than the alternatives of doing without, or using Interlibrary Loan for journals a given library does not hold, or purchasing individual articles on a pay-per-view basis. The difficulty is that it is hard to calculate libraries' costs systemically, and even if we can calculate them, we often have impermeable boundaries that make savings impossible to realize. For example:

    —  In our university, budgets are in buckets. Staff salaries are in one bucket; operations are in another; collections in another. On the one hand, this kind of silo or bucket system is less flexible than would be ideal; but on the other hand it allows our university to budget in advance for broad areas and understand precisely where expenditures are being made. So, for example, if we arrange a "Big Deal," and we pay 7% more (or whatever) for all of Elsevier's (or whoever's) journals list, we save our cataloguers a lot of time because we now can buy our MARC catalog records really cheaply in bulk from a company such as SerialsSolutions; there is no further need for Interlibrary Loan for those titles, so there are fewer demands on staff, and we reduce our human handling costs in various places.

  But can we move those staff savings to the collections budgets? No, because of the buckets. [NOTE that the prestigious JSTOR e-journals project—converting a hundred years of journals to electronic form—had exactly this problem in that the creators of JSTOR thought or hoped that the capital costs of adding shelving to library stacks would be reduced through digitizing backfiles. But that part of the dream was not realized, because libraries and universities cannot move capital budgets to collections budgets. Moreover, the capital budget does not even belong to the Library in most universities.] Action: The Library takes concerted action to reduce costs. Result: Some other budget saves the money and forgets to say thank you.

    —  Even more, in spite of the added value of the "Big Deal," savings on the library's staff side are hard to realize, because periodicals duties are allocated across many staff who have more to do than time to do it—so the collections budget increases by a few percent, while the staff budget does not decline. The electronic journals have come into the library in a way that has increased pressure on existing infrastructure, so some of the "savings" of the "Big Deal" are merely a reduction of that new pressure.

    —  In a consortial purchasing arrangement, where a group of libraries join together to secure better pricing and licensing terms, efficiencies can be greater still, but the difficulty of realizing those savings in dollar terms is impossible.

  So, even where the "Big Deal" saves money systemwide, the Library and University cannot easily benefit from that savings.

  Now, having said that the "Big Deal" is very useful, it has its drawbacks, too.

    —  Access to all titles from a given publisher or publishers raises expectations for service: for immediate, cost-free (to readers) seamless access, not just for access to a given publisher but for all journals. Those heightened expectations are hard to meet; probably impossible.

    —  Once a library has provided improved access, it can be hard psychologically on readers of that library to go back to selectivity.

    —  And the "Big Deal" does cost the collections budgets more, so if financial times are not robust and the money is no longer available, one does need to return to more limited selection. The tensions of deal-making for the last year or so have all arisen from this pull between buyers and publishers in a time of tightened budgets.

  Publishers can behave responsibly in this environment. Many have flexible in offering sub "Big Deals," ie, subject collections, limited collections, a separate deal for all titles under their imprint, and so on.

  In some of today's big deals there are some bad pricing features, and these must be mentioned as well:

    —  First, with some such deals there are large penalties for being able to pick and choose from the publisher's menu for electronic and print versions. When an out-of-range surcharge (perhaps on the order of 25% over the cost of print) comes from very large and/or very important publishers, it is just too expensive. This model may work if a given library is willing and able to drop all of its print subscriptions immediately. That may happen soon and some argue it should, but responsiveness to reader and concerns for the long-term preservation of electronic journals leaves most research libraries for the moment bringing both electronic and print versions to users, or at least assuring that print is retained somewhere close by in the geographical region.

    —  Second, in difficult financial times, a publisher may seek the security of not allowing any room for even slight or gradual attrition out of the "Big Deal," even to its biggest and best customers. For example, in one contract's first three years, libraries in our consortium (NERL: NorthEast Research Libraries) could cancel about 5% of expenditures over the life of the deal and take the savings. In the next contract that freedom went away. There were prolonged negotiations, but the no-attrition clause stayed, and in our consortium a couple of large institutions with overall budget reductions had to leave the arrangement. This lack of ability to retreat slowly or gradually from a complete list is where the bad publicity now surrounding the "Big Deal" mostly comes from. It is, let it be noted, market pressure pure and simple that is now pushing (one hopes) some publishers to a more moderate position.

  So—in sum, the "Big Deal" can be good and cost effective. It is optional: no one HAS to take it, and libraries need to remember that rather than to grumble. But it can be expensive, so publishers need to provide an affordable way out. Where they do not, they are the losers, as much or more than the libraries or their readers. Ideally, each publisher will offer a variety of pricing options into the future, and the "Big Deal" should be one of them. No single model exists that is right for all libraries or consortia. Even as libraries ask publishers to be flexible, they should remember not to malign the libraries that make different choices, such as those for a "Big Deal."

2.   What action should Government, academic institutions and publishers be taking to promote a competitive market in scientific publications?

  Government action: NONE. The landscape is evolving rapidly and the perceptions and actions of individual players are responding just as rapidly. Government action can be a sledgehammer and hard to modify if one sees that, contrary to intention, the hammer is hitting things it was not meant to hit. Academic institutions and publishers are already studying the options and acting as rationally self-interested parties. Probably no one is 100% satisfied with the current system, but that is in some part because a system based on new technologies distributes costs and benefits differently from what has been the case in the past, and because participants take time to understand and accept their role and take time to adjust their behavior to take maximum advantage of the new conditions. Hasty intervention destabilizes a community that is already moving towards a stable market and delays the time at which we will know whether we have workable solutions or not.

3.   What are the consequences of increasing numbers of open-access journals, for example for the operation of the Research Assessment Exercise and other selection processes? Should the Government support such a trend and, if so, how?

  I cannot comment on the REA, but would like to make some observations about the rhetoric of open access.

  The appeal of open-access journals is considerable, no question. What is less certain is whether there is a sustainable business model for them. When proponents speak of reaching the "utopian ideal of free information" (as on one public discussion list recently), others must express caution that utopias are often a good deal more expensive than free, and are indeed often bad ideas. Government funding for good new ideas about ways to run journals can be a very good thing, but it should not come as a shower of gold looking for things to fund but rather as a measured response to good ideas. Proponents of open access publishing should be challenged to show a plan and a business model and specify what government funding would do over time. So far much of what passes for business plans is very attractive ideology, which is, therefore, not deeply scrutinized. Too few question the notion that one single up front payment can sustain an article for years to come, through various technological changes. Not enough users question the statement that they will be able to find information they seek because popular commercial search engines will solve the problem. One of today's largest open access publishers would seem to be understating its per-article acceptance costs significantly and already needs to raise charges for some of its journals.

  While I am one of many people who would like to see information be easily accessible to all (though I confess even more to wishing that everyone in the world could drink clean water, that much childhood disease could be eradicated, and that we could reach the goals of global literacy), I find it difficult to see how a business model that is based on just enough income to publish with none left over can be sustainable. I am deeply concerned that, according to some preliminary numbers we have developed, open access looks to put the entire burden of supporting a world wide literature upon the large research institutions such as universities, and their funding agencies. None of the costs would be supported by the many "free riders" who would have unlimited access under a system where "every use is fair use," even though a number of those could afford to support the scholarly publishing system at least to some extent.

  It is worth noting, by the way, that many, many existing publishers, both not-for-profit and for-profit, have taken a great interest in the information needs of developing and poor nations and have made available literally thousands of journals to such countries for free or very cheaply, based on ability to pay. For a listing of such initiatives, see the "Developing Nations Initiatives" site at our LIBLICENSE web page:

  I am sure that many respondents to the inquiry will offer many specific and valid concerns about the reality of the open access arguments of today, so I will leave the field to them! Meanwhile, I'll add that the kind of study re: open access feasibility proposed by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, ALPSP, of the UK should be encouraged and funded. I am suggesting to many publishers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that they consider participation in this effort. A government grant for this work could prove invaluable.

4.   How effectively are the Legal Deposit Libraries making available non-print scientific publications to the research community, and what steps should they be taking in this respect?

  No comment, as this is not quite analogous to US law and practice.

5.   What impact will trends in academic journal publishing have on the risks of scientific fraud and malpractice?

  There is no intrinsic connection between current publishing trends and fraud/malpractice. If new or old journals were to operate without substantial and effective peer review, then quality would decline. But with information more widely available and visible, the ability to detect and address ethical issues could conceivably improve. To me, however, it seems that the other forces that both incent misconduct and pursue it are considerably larger and more powerful in their workings.

  The focus of the questions for this inquiry has the effect of risking omission of a critical consideration that I would like to address here. Academics and publishers are not two different species, like hobbits and orcs, who live in different worlds, speak different languages, and come together only in an atmosphere of hostility and confrontation. The links between academe and publishing are many and close and important. Thousands of working scientists and scholars are closely associated with the editing and peer review of journals, and those journals, their flexibility, their timeliness, their ability to grow, expand, and respond to authors' and editors' needs are an essential feature of the scientific and scholarly landscape. The publishers themselves work closely with academics and librarians on a variety of common issues and concerns. The size and importance of the publishing enterprise means that it entails movement of large sums of money, and so we will disagree and grow testy about our various concerns. But progress in mutual understanding has been considerable in recent years, even as a dramatic revolution has overtaken the form of journal publishing with the move to electronic distribution. To discuss one aspect of the economics of publishing out of context and to think about coercing change in that aspect runs the risk of damaging (by leaving out of consideration) elements of the system that are vital to the functioning of science and learning.

February 2004

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