Re: Publishers' profits

From: John MacColl <>
Date: Thu, 4 Jul 2002 08:43:39 +0100


I tend to agree with you that the need to tackle subscription costs
complements the establishment of open archives - and I think SPARC is
correct in promoting both approaches.

One concern I have is with the way publishers - particularly Elsevier - are
exploiting their ejournal aggregations to reduce the leverage of libraries.
ScienceDirect makes the case. How do you cancel a subscription to 1500
journals at once without causing a war on the campus? Because most of us
feel we cannot, and partial cancellation is not worth it, we are then
obliged to cancel titles from other publishers, thereby reinforcing the
Elsevier hegemony, creating the illusion that the online research literature
maps almost exclusively onto the Elsevier corpus, and unknowingly pushing
Elsevier journals up the impact tables, as Jean-Claude Guedon has noted. It
seems to me that, when we reach the day - in a couple of years perhaps -
when our institutions are ready to accept electronic-only, their aim is to
have ensured that we are spending at least as much on their e-only content
as we did on the print journals, when we were at least at liberty to make
cancellations of individual titles as we
saw fit. And I think it is interesting that by then they may have secured
their ability to generate large profit from the freely given work of
academic researchers without relying on copyright as a weapon. Might they
sense that it will not be an effective weapon after all?

At any rate, I hold the view that condition-based aggregations of journals
are insidious, and that librarians should resist them. I heard John Houghton
speak on this topic recently. He made the point that aggregations hide price
signals - as indeed do consortium purchase deals, and used an analogy
between librarians buying content on behalf of academics, and dog-owners
buying dog-food on behalf of their pets. The purchasers are not the
consumers (and our consumers are getting a luxury product!). If the dogs had
their own budgets, they might buy very differently. But academics couldn't
buy more sensibly at present, even if they wanted to, because the price
information is masked by aggregations and consortium licence deals, and the
granular purchasing flexibility we require to pick and choose from a
publisher's portfolio has been eroded by the conditions attaching to the Big
Deal (I
think some selective purchasing is possible, but for a large research
library there is no incentive to do so - and it probably suits publishers to
'connect us to the full tank', as Jean-Claude puts it, which might well be
cheaper for them than to have to deal with a thousand customised sub-sets).

In our dealings with publishers, I feel we need to go on the attack over
'all you can eat' deals. We should see every title in an aggregation
individually priced, and be able to cancel any individual titles whenever we
choose (on an annual basis). In other words, we should carry over the
pricing and purchasing model from the print journal enviornment - for as
long as the concept of branded journals holds good. I would like to see
SPARC helping libraries with a campaign of this sort.

And I think we probably need to stop consortial purchasing - or modify it
considerably. The basis for it is surely in the economies of scale offered
to a publisher being passed on, in part, to the customer. But if the product
is e-only, those economies of scale may be harder to realise - and if in any
case we want to sensitise the market so that the academics - whether or not
they hold the budgets directly - can see the prices *and are free to modify
the aggregated set they wish to purchase year by year without penalty* -
then there is little sense in a consortium approach which at once begins to
obscure that instiutional sensitisation. Also, I think publishers like
consortia because it allows them to play with their power to discount,
giving the illusion of good deals, which often are not good deals at all.
I'd rather see Microsoft-like 'campus agreements' (the analogy is not
accidental: I suspect Elsevier is more anti-competitive than Microsoft)
published openly, for individual instituions to make choices over, rather
than the dealing in secret with consortia that goes on at present.

I think we need to start fighting back against the big deals. We need a 'Big
Deal!' (sarcasm implied) campaign!


------------- Created on Wed 3 July 2002
John MacColl
SELLIC Director
Sub-Librarian, Online Services
University of Edinburgh Tel: 0131 650 7275/3375 or 07808 170075
Received on Thu Jul 04 2002 - 08:43:39 BST

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