When is the price right?

It is always interesting when the events of my life and the materials I am reading coincide to force my attention on a particular point.  Fate, I wonder?  Providence? Maybe just coincidence.

Anyway, yesterday a colleague sent a message to a e-mail list in which he recommended a specific journal article in the library science literature.  I was interested and set out to obtain a copy.  In this particular case, however, Duke’s impressive collection of electronic resources did not go quite far enough.  Probably because we do not have an LIS school, the specific journal in question was canceled in print several years ago, and there is no electronic database in our collection that offers full-text access.

In the course of searching, however, I did discover that I could purchase a PDF of the single article directly from the journal publisher for a cost of $30.00.  That price point, I must say, exceeded my felt need to read the article immediately, and I opted instead for inter-library loan.

This mundane little incident occurred while I had this article on “The iPad for Academics” (from the “Chronicle of Higher Education”) open on my desktop in anticipation of a closer reading.  I have become an enthusiastic iPad user over the past two months, and this article confirms my own sense that one of the best functions of the device for academics is the ability to store, organize and comfortably read PDF journal articles.

In his editorial, however, Alex Golub goes beyond simply explaining the benefits and drawbacks of the iPad for academic use; he also comments on the changes he anticipates in scholarly publishing.  He is funny and scathing about our current model for purchasing journal content — “[publishers] have pursued business models of the “purchase this enormous bundle of journals you don’t want or else our Death Star will destroy another planet of your Rebel Alliance” variety” — and he predicts that this soon may change.  Golub anticipates that the iPad and the model of the apps store will lead eventually to the “retailization” of academic content.  He speculates on the benefits if academic journals marketed their content directly to their ultimate consumers:

“What if you could log on to your ScienceDirect or JSTOR app and get a complete browsable list of your favorite journal articles, available for purchase for, say, 25 cents each?”

Golub asserts that “academics are ready for this development,” but I have to wonder if publishers are there yet.  Certainly there is a huge gap between the 25 cent price point that Golub suggests and the $30 one that I encountered.  For the disaggregated purchase model that Golub is advocating to work, some middle ground would have to be found, but I imagine that a successful price point would need to be much closer to the low end of the spectrum than to the current norm.

The truth is, I suspect, that the publishers really do not expect, or even want, to sell many articles at $30 apiece.  That price is meant to discourage, not to sell; it is intended to shock academics into insisting that their libraries subscribe, not only to the individual title, but to the electronic bundle in which it is packaged.  The publishing industry is built on large payments for aggregated content and shows little inclination to transition to any form of disaggregation or micro-payments.  Indeed, if we could make this transition, the intermediary role of the publisher might begin to seem even less important than it does now.

In fact, I am not entirely convinced that the academy is really ready for some of the changes that disaggregation would usher in.  One consequence might be the disappearance of quite a few smaller journals.  Bundling keeps many journals with only niche markets in business.  Disaggregation would allow such journals to take advantage of “the long tail” that Internet marketing clearly supports, but it is not at all certain that all of those small, niche journals could exploit “long tail” marketing or survive on it.  Who would win and who would lose in that situation is an open question, but it is certain that there would be fairly dramatic changes in how academic content is registered, evaluated and disseminated.

I don’t want to sound like I am opposed to the idea Golub suggests for “apps based” sales of scholarly articles; it is an intriguing idea.  It might well be a better alternative for the majority of scholars than our current clunky and inefficient system.  But we should not underestimate the disruption to settled practices that significant change in the scholarly communications system will involve.  As librarians and others advocate for those changes, we need to remain aware of the potential for such disruptions, and sensitive to the varying reactions we are likely to hear from the scholars we serve.

One thought on “When is the price right?”

  1. Kevin I had the exact same experience a couple of days ago! (not being able to find a library science article I needed). Time to revisit our subscriptions…

  2. Time for librarians to exercise their rights and insist on self-archiving, if not gold open access. If we can’t be bothered, how do we expect other scholars to make their work accessible? (Grrr!)

    A problem I have with Golub’s idea (and with the PPV many libraries are using to avoid Big Deals that are mostly unused) is that the library ceases to be a commons, where anyone can discover the same information. If we have to pay by the piece, what will that do to serious literature reviews? What will it do to students? We’ve been slipping down this slope for a while, but I think we should open our eyes and figure out how to sustain the conversational nature of scholarship.

  3. I wonder if we could think of PPV as a supplement to the commons, rather than a replacement for it. As it is now, there is always some information that is not available at our libraries. If access to that information were priced more reasonably, scholarship would benefit and libraries might even be able to get reports from vendors that would inform their purchasing decisions. Patron-driven acquisition, anyone?

    Don’t get me wrong, however. These are interesting ideas to discuss, but I agree that self-archive=ing is the first, most important step to improve access to scholarship.

  4. Yes, you’re probably right about PPV; I’m kind of surprised that some college libraries (not large ones) spend thousands on disposable articles – some are making a seamless route to these articles through SciDirect, and the end-user doesn’t necessarily see that database as any different than owned content; the libraries, though, spend much less than they had on subscribing to content that might never be used – but we order a lot of ILL on similar terms, so I should probably just get over it. Until we achieve OA nirvana, anyway.

  5. Professional societies and research organizations do not need to publish bound versions of journals in order to gain credibility. Researchers should abandon the old model. It is almost paradoxical that researchers publish work in journals for free (albeit they do it for exposure, career reasons, etc.) and then we have to pay rediculous sums to read them. Many people might not care, because they don’t pay out of their own pocket, but consider this: the money wasted on journal publishing and distribution could be spent on other aspects of research. With the advent of the internet, the whole publishing system is obsolete. The only way to fix it is for major research societies and groups to vote to drop it, permenantly.

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