Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Publisher’s Dilemma

The stinging critique of scholarly publishers by George Monbiot in The Guardian and on his blog describes the symptoms accurately, but misses the diagnosis of the problem. As commercial enterprises, publishers have a duty to their shareholders and to their employees to extract as much value as possible out of the information they own. If you think they should not own the scholarly record, blame the academics that signed over copyright. If you think site licenses for scholarly journals are too expensive, blame universities for continuing to buy into the system. Scholarly publishers are neither evil nor dishonest. They are capitalists exploiting a market they have created with eager participation of academia. Academics and librarians have been whining about the cost of scholarly journals for the last twenty years. One more yammering op-ed piece, or a thousand, will not change a dysfunctional scholarly-information market. Only economically meaningful actions can do that. Change the market, and the capitalists will follow.

By making buying decisions on behalf of a community, libraries eliminate competition between journals and create a distorted market. (See my previous blog post “What if Libraries were the Problem?”) The last twenty years were a chaotic period that included inflating and bursting economic bubbles, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, several wars, and unprecedented technological advances in the delivery of information. In line with normal expectations under these conditions, most publishers faced an existential crisis. Amazingly, most scholarly publishers thrived. Is it just a coincidence their main revenue source is libraries?

Researchers need access to scholarly research. This legitimate need is conflated with the necessity of buying site licenses. A site license merely extends a rigid paper-era business model that ignores the unlimited flexibility of digital information. As digital-music consumers, students and faculty will not even buy an album of ten songs if they are interested in only one or two. Yet, for this community, their library subscribes to bundles of journals and joins consortia to buy even greater bundles of journals. Pay-per-view systems are expensive and painfully slow, particularly when handled through interlibrary loan. This information-delivery system is out of step with current expectations. The recording industry serves as an example of what happens in these circumstances.

It’s time to face the music. (I could not resist.) For an author, the selection of an appropriate journal and/or publisher is crucially important. For a reader, citations and peer recommendations trump journals’ tables of content, and book reviews trump publishers’ catalogs. I call on publishers to partner with Apple, Amazon, Thomson Reuters (Web of Knowledge), EBSCO, and others to develop convenient and affordable gateways that provide access to any scholarly article or book, from any publisher, whether open or paid access. Such an initiative might eat into site-license revenue, but it just might prevent the system from collapse and provide a platform for sustainable reader-pays models or hybrid models. Publishers have already hedged their bets with sincere, but timid, open-access initiatives. This is just one additional hedge, just in case...

In fact, I suspect many publishers have mixed feelings about site licenses. They generate high revenue, but they also come with high fixed costs. An extensive sales staff keeps track of thousands of libraries and conducts endless negotiations. Middlemen take a bite out of most proceeds. Every special deal must pass through an internal approval process, taking executives’ time and energy. There are serious technical complications in controlling access to journals covered by site licenses, because publishers must cede authentication processes to libraries and because they have no direct relationship with their readership. Publishers are caught in a vicious circle of increasing costs, more difficult negotiations, more cancellations, and increasing prices. I suspect they want a better system, one in which they can offer more services to more users. Yet, they find it impossible to abandon their only significant business model, even one at danger of collapsing under its own weight.

Change will happen only if universities take economically meaningful actions. Stop buying site licenses, let students and faculty decide their personal information requirements, subsidize them where appropriate, and let the free market run its course. (See my previous blog post “Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World”.) In future blog posts, I intend to discuss methods to subsidize information that are more effective than buying site licenses and gradual approaches to get us there. Just as a thought experiment, consider the following: Cancel all site licenses, and use the savings to lower student tuition and raise faculty salaries. How long would it take for alternative distribution channels develop? How would prices evolve? How popular would open access be?

In a web-connected world, the role of libraries as intermediaries between information providers and readers is obsolete. As discussed in “The Fourth Branch Library”, libraries should increase their focus on collecting, managing, and broadcasting the information their communities generate. They should not be concerned with the information their communities consume.