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 nothingaccess 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 readersand 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 perfector 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 projectconverting a hundred years of journals
to electronic formhad 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 itso
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
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.
Soin 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
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: http://www.library.yale.edu/~llicense
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
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.