Blessay: Journal Pricing Models

Using a writing style known as a blessay, a term coined by Dan Cohen, I wrote a piece about the controversy surrounding the rising costs of scholarly journals.



By Gina Shelton, November 6, 2012

The angry librarian, a stereotype perpetuated through cartoons and media, is no longer the image of an old curmudgeon, behind a wooden desk, silencing unsuspecting patrons with a deadly “shhh!” Instead, angry librarians are sending messages via blogs and tweets, asking the unsuspecting community to end the silence. What is the source of this modern anger, you might ask? Journal pricing.

The source of the anger: budgets vs. journal prices

The rising costs of journal prices plus falling (or steady) library budgets, has forced libraries to make tough decisions about collection development and stirred a debate about the fairness of pricing models in scholarly publishing. The Library Journal’s 2012 Periodicals Price Survey reported a trend in price increases for serials. Depending on the data analyzed the prices increased by 4.3-5% during 2010-2011 and by 5.5-6% during 2011-2012. Compared with the 2.9% increase in the Consumer Price Index, it is no wonder librarians are upset with journal prices when they increase more than the rate of inflation.

What does this mean for libraries? As library budgets decrease or flatten out librarians struggle to meet the collection needs of their patrons. Agreeing to a subscription with a larger price tag, means forfeiting in other areas of the collection. Plus, as patrons demand more instant, electronic access to information, the more necessary electronic journal subscriptions become. And this is why librarians are angry. How can they possibly meet the information needs of their patrons, with tight budgets and current journal pricing models?

The most popular model for journal pricing, both physical and digital, is a subscription. Libraries pay a yearly fee to have access to the volumes published in the coming year. This sounds straightforward initially, but how this is implemented for a digital version is different than the physical counterpart. When a library subscribes to a print edition of a journal, a physical copy is provided and remains in the library as long as deemed necessary. Digital editions are often bundled with other titles, and the library purchases the package for a set number of years. When a contract is up for renewal, if the package changes or a library chooses not to renew, then the library does not retain access to material paid for during previous subscriptions.

This digital journal subscription model is often called the Big Deal and was initially a popular option. The Big Deal bundles multiple titles with varying rates of popularity and impact factors. Originally this option was more cost effective than purchasing each title individually, and then libraries would have access to additional material within the bundle. As prices rise for these bundles and consume a greater percentage of a library’s budget, institutions are rethinking their contracts.

Libraries across the United States vocalize their anger

University of California

Libraries have vocalized their discontent for journal prices for many years. However, in the last two years, several institutions have gone a step further by acting upon their discontent. Such movements are making the headlines of popular education and library publications.

In 2010, Norman Oder of the Library Journal (LJ) reported on the University of California’s (UC) battle over pricing with the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). On June 4, 2010 a letter was posted to a UC blog outlining the crisis. According to Oder’s article, the NPG proposed a new contract for 2011 that would increase prices by 400%, from $4,465 per journal in 2010 to $17,479 per journal in 2011. The authors of the letter were angry about the increases, and argued that the integral involvement of the UC faculty with the NPG publications is one reason to reconsider the proposed prices. The UC faculty have conducted lots of research published by the NPG and are involved in the publishing process as editors and reviewers. Keith Yamamoto, a UC professor, proposed a boycott that would negatively affect the NPG, as highlighted by the previously established relationships between the two groups.

The Nature Publishing Group argued in response that the UC was receiving a large discount that was no longer sustainable. The proposed contract reflected current day pricing, which was comparable to costs paid by other institutions. The increase can also be partly explained by the NPG’s shift in models; instead of a subscription model they changed to a cost-per-download model, which at the time of the LJ article was $0.56 per download.

Only two months passed after the University of California’s initial letter, before both groups met and released a joint letter about their efforts to work together. They expressed interest in experimenting with new publishing models that would benefit both parties, as well as the scholarly community. A year and a half later, they are still in discussions, per a February 2011 letter released by the UC. While the University has maintained the license they had with the NPG, they have not agreed to a new model for any new titles. Even as they negotiate, the UC is vocalizing their desire for faculty to pursue other publishing models, including Open Access.

Harvard University

Earlier this year, Harvard University’s faculty advisory council announced that the libraries could no longer sustain contracts with large journal publishers. The authors stated that the source of the problem is the rising costs of journal bundling. According to the memo, the journal prices set by the unnamed publishers will mean that Harvard will spend a little under 10% of their entire acquisitions budget for these specific bundles. Two online journal subscriptions increased by 145% over six years. In The Guardian’s review of this memo, the director of Harvard Library, Robert Darnton, reported that, “one year’s subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology costs the same as 300 monographs.” If Harvard choses the large publishing contracts, other areas of the collection would suffer.

Costs of journals alone are upsetting, but when you examine the system of scholarly publishing, the ethics behind the costs come into question. Typically scholarly research and peer review are free systems. An author submits an article to a journal, which is then reviewed for free. When an article is accepted, the author(s) don’t usually receive compensation. As Ian Sample from The Guardian article points out, libraries have to pay publishers to have access to the material produced by their own community.

This arguably unfair system of access may have been one of the issues that prompted Harvard’s suggestions for change. The memo contains nine options for responding to the crisis, most pertaining to Open Access. Faculty and librarians were challenged to consider publishing in, advocating for, and purchasing open access journals. Such a strong statement by a noteworthy institution may be a sign of changes within the academic publishing community.

State University of New York at Potsdam

The most recent public statement against journal pricing came from Jenica Rogers, the director of the SUNY Potsdam libraries in New York. In September she posted a blog entry about her decision to cancel the library’s subscription to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) journal package for 2013. She stated that the tiered pricing model, while reasonable in theory, was untenable for her library. In the tiered pricing model, libraries pay different rates based on multiple factors, like usage, number of full-time students (FTEs) and budget. Simply put, smaller libraries pay less than larger libraries because, theoretically, less material will be accessed. According to Rogers, the base price for the package is just too costly for small institutions like hers.

At SUNY Potsdam the chemistry department is small; the program has 7 faculty members and grants only undergraduate degrees. In Rogers’s blog, she explains that agreeing to the ACS’s proposed pricing would have used more than 10% of her total acquisitions budget. And in an article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rogers explains that the ACS package would cost more than all the music databases purchased for their large music conservatory.

The American Chemical Society’s initial response to Rogers’s blog was limited as printed in The Chronicle. The spokesperson, Glenn S. Ruskin, would not provide a response to Rogers, explaining the company’s views that online communication is not constructive. He encouraged phone or face-to-face dialogue.

The news media and blogosphere picked up on the story, highlighting an interesting debate about how to fairly price journals for various institutions. John Dupuis chronicled various missives and news articles on the blog Confessions of a Science Librarian, and reported that a heated debate ensued on a chemistry listserv. One might speculate that all this attention prompted the ACS to respond publicly, despite the company’s earlier position. Their first response was an open letter by Brandon Nordin to the library community stating their interest in finding a reasonable solution to the pricing problem. A full-page copy of this letter was published in the October 19th edition of The Chronicle.

The second response, also by Brandon Nordin, was an email posted to the Chemical Information Sources Discussion list hosted by Indiana University. Nordin’s opening paragraph states his plan to “clarify information that has been shared on this listserv and elsewhere”. Following is a brief overview of the negotiations with SUNY Potsdam for the last few years. In 2009 the library was offered access to more journal titles for a small increase, about 7% yearly. At the beginning of 2012, the State University of New York requested a review of the contract, and the ACS explored pricing that reflected a cost-per-download model. In addition, the ACS offered an alternative subscription called the ACS Academic Core+. This package contains 15 essential chemistry journals and is geared towards schools with a small focus on research.

Nordin ends his email stating the American Chemical Society’s goal to provide equitable access to their content. To accomplish this goal he poses several issues to address. He questions whether or not distinctions should be made between institutions regarding pricing options, and how those distinctions should be made. From the customer’s perspective, he asks librarians to consider methods for assessing the value of a package for their patrons. And he challenges institutions to consider the possible trade-offs when trying to meet patrons’ demands for electronic access on a limited budget. Nordin’s questions are not unique the ACS vs. SUNY Potsdam debate. Going forward, these questions will be useful in guiding all discussions between libraries and publishers.

Anger management

The University of California, Harvard and SUNY Potsdam are great examples of libraries at the forefront of the changing landscape of scholarly publishing. Libraries, large or small, can participate in this movement. It doesn’t have to be at the same scale as Harvard or through the same method as SUNY Potsdam. Think of your institution’s unique set of strengths and challenges and consider the following responses.

1. Modify subscriptions and supplement collections

Brandon Nordin’s email to the chemistry community addresses a great point: there are trade-offs in the management of collections. Unless you have an unlimited budget or patrons with no information needs, chances are you will need to make some sacrifices or change your purchasing model.

You can start by investigating your current contracts and ask to negotiate. This may mean subscribing to a different package or debundling any Big Deals. Reviewing usage data may reveal that it is less expensive to subscribe to just the high usage journals, instead of a package with mixed usage journals. Demand transparency. By knowing what other similar institutions are paying for comparable products, publishers can’t be inconsistent with their pricing. This may mean refusing to agree to language in a contract that keeps this information confidential.

Should you have to downsize your journal offerings, consider other means for getting access to materials for lower usage subject areas. For example, supplement with pay-per-view (PPV) or interlibrary loan. It may be less expensive to pay per article with a PPV model, or pay lender’s fees or copyright fees for access through interlibrary loan.

2. Suggest alternatives to traditional publishing models

Both Harvard and the University of California suggested other means by which information can be stored and distributed. The popular alternatives right now are Open Access (OA) journals and Institutional Repositories (IR). Typically OA journals provide content at no cost to the user. There are mixed OA models in which a journal provides only some content for free, but overall OA is a more user/library-friendly option. An IR stores the scholarly content of the faculty and students at a particular institution. By storing your institution’s scholarly work you retain some say over who has access and how.

When working with students and faculty, suggest that they utilize research published in Open Access journals and Institutional Repositories. Make it easier for patrons to access these sources, by including them on your website or in your library’s catalog. Consider developing an IR if you don’t already have one. If you do, market the benefits of this service to encourage more people to participate.

3. Encourage change through faculty

Your very own faculty have great influence in the publishing world. Harvard realized this and asked their faculty members in their memo to reconsider where they publish and how their professional partnerships with publishers can change. At your own institution, encourage faculty to publish in Open Access journals and your Institutional Repository (if you have one), or to select journals with fair pricing models. Encourage editors to investigate changing their journals to OA. Lastly, urge your community to voice their opinions about publishing models and pricing issues. Communal protest does work.

Moving past anger

There is no doubt that there is a sea change in academic publishing. While there is surely discontent on the academic side, publishers have acknowledged the need for change too. All parties are interested in finding models that fairly pay for scholarly work and the methods of distribution. In addition, the model would ideally include equitable access to that work. Suppressed anger over the current system will only keep us stagnant. By acting on our discontent, and participating in the discourse, we can work towards a set of common goals to improve access to scholarly research.


About Gina Shelton

I am a Reference Clerk at the Pratt Institute Libraries' Brooklyn campus and am currently working on my MSLIS.
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