Friday, July 29, 2011

What if Libraries were the Problem?

On July 19, Harvard University fellow Aaron Swartz was arraigned for breaking into a network closet at MIT and illegally downloading scholarly articles from a well-known database. Whatever his motivations, his approach was misguided, even bizarre. But if one understands the dysfunctional state of scholarly publishing, one cannot help but sympathize.

Because scholarly journals control peer review and publish research, they have significant influence on the academic appointment process. This influence has paid off for scholarly publishers. For at least twenty-five years, prices of scholarly journals have increased at super-inflationary rates. Every year, universities spend billions buying back the research papers of their own researchers. Adding insult to injury, most of this research was funded by the taxpayer. Academic libraries have been discussing the looming crisis since the mid-nineties and gradually embraced various attempts to provide scholarly research at no or reduced cost to the reader. These modest open-access initiatives have improved access, but they have not bent the cost curve of established journals. The business-as-usual mentality of scholarly publishers is particularly remarkable, in light of the fact that other publishers are facing a major existential crisis.

Most readers gain access to scholarly journals through libraries, which negotiate site licenses for packages of journals while balancing budget restrictions and demands from faculty and students. Libraries are between a rock and a hard place. There is a way out, but it requires acceptance of a fundamental fact: digital information needs its own distribution system. Site licenses are nothing more than a digital implementation of paper journals, developed so that the same acquisition departments and publisher agents can conduct business the way they have always done.

Site licenses sacrifice the essential feature of digital information: unlimited flexibility to divide up and reassemble according to personal and temporal needs. For almost every segment of the economy, the web has been a disintermediating technology. Yet, libraries remain stuck in the banal role of middlemen between their communities and publishers.

Site licenses are not only inflexible, they are anti-competitive. If 15% of a campus wants Journal A, 15% competing Journal B, 10% wants both A and B, and the rest wants neither, the library is effectively forced to buy both A and B. By standing between readers and publishers, libraries unwittingly eliminate competition.

Site licenses create price in-elasticity. With the cost of journals nearly invisible, readers cannot make an honest price-value judgment and they have no incentive to seek and/or develop alternative publications, such as open-access journals.

Site license pricing evolved from paper journal pricing without any basis in a real free market. Academic libraries were a captive market, and scholarly publishers were able to set prices so as to maintain established levels of profitability. Which other publishing business had that luxury during the web revolution?

Negotiating site licenses is expensive. Library staff monitor journal usage and conduct community surveys. Bundling (combining several journals into a “discounted” package) and consortium packages (combining the site licenses of different institutions) further complicate the negotiations. Staff spend countless hours studying usage, meeting with faculty, students, administration, consortium partners, and finally publishers’ agents.

Maintaining site licenses is expensive. Every change to every site license propagates to a multitude of library-managed databases, creating a maintenance headache.

Finally, site licenses do not allow for special circumstances. For example, a growing number of researchers want to use data-mining techniques on the scholarly literature. They need to download tens of thousands of articles, an action that violates the terms of virtually all site licenses. Ironically, actors that owe their existence to research are stifling it.

Libraries must get out of the business of buying and redistributing digital content. This only made sense for information on paper. Redistribution of digital information is done far more effectively on a global scale, as commercial services like Apple iTunes, the Amazon Kindle Store, and Netflix have proven. Because of economies of scale, national and international distribution systems (whether commercial or noncommercial) have the technological resources to provide information customized to individuals. Most libraries can only cater to the typical person of their community. Libraries would remain a resource for users that need help locating information, but there is no reason to couple the advising role and the purchasing role. New funding mechanisms that replace current library subsidies could put users in charge of their own information purchases. This would create a free market for scholarly information behind pay walls.

Meanwhile, freed from their role as middlemen protecting the publishers’ pay walls, libraries could concentrate on activities that add real value: collecting, maintaining, and disseminating the unique information generated by their respective communities. They would dedicate their resources on the dissemination of quality information to as wide an audience as possible.

POSTSCRIPT 1/21/2013: Aaron Swartz died on January 11th, 2013. The circumstances of his tragic suicide are well documented in the news. Having never met or communicated with him, I have no insights to offer on Aaron the person. I also have no particular knowledge about the legal case against Aaron. I can only express that the unnecessary death of this young brilliant mind touched me deeply.
I extend my sincere condolences to Aaron's family.