Libraries, pricing and piracy

I recently told the north Carolina Serials conference that the so-called “journals pricing crisis” had outlasted any meaningful definition of the word crisis and was no longer the driving force behind our discussions of scholarly communications, if, indeed, it ever was.  Nevertheless, it simply will not go away, as witnessed by another round of library uproar over publisher prices.

The fuss over Harper Collin’s new e-book pricing model just keeps growing, of course, and on Tuesday an article about it was on the front page of the dead-tree edition of the New York Times.  Of possibly greater significance are the reports that the librarian from Imperial College London has issued an ultimatum on behalf of Research Libraries UK to Elsevier over the price increase they are demanding for the journal “big deal” package.  She is demanding a price decrease in line with library budgetary realities and greater flexibility.

Each time these kerfuffles make the news I ask myself if this will be the one that bears fruit, that actually leads to large-scale cancellations and, just maybe, real change.  So often, frankly, libraries ultimately back down because our first concern is always our patrons, and we cannot overlook the need, or at least the desire, that our academic communities feel for these resources.  That tendency to give in has lead many in the content industries to believe, apparently, that libraries really are bottomless wells of money, down which they can drop a bucket whenever they feel the pinch.

I continue to hope that we librarians will realize, at some point, that reform of the severely broken scholarly communications system will ultimately benefit our academic communities more than continuous access to big deal journal packages will.  This is especially so as an increasing number of researchers tell us that they do not use those packages much anymore.  Faster and less formal means of getting access to research findings are becoming the norm in many disciplines, from physics to economics.  In some cases pre-print repositories are now the major source of the rapid awareness of new research that is needed, in others it is the more informal exchange of ideas prior to formal publication.  As more of these paths develop, our dedication to big-deal journal packages will seem increasingly like a relic of a previous age.

This is not to say that the transition will be easy.  The road to reform will certainly take us through more painful encounters, both with publishers and with our own faculty.  Like so many other librarians, I am anxious for change but hope that other libraries and other librarians (like Deborah Shorley from Imperial) will take the lead in these confrontations.

But it also seems likely that other forces will get publisher attention and force changes in standard business models before we librarians do it.  Is Ms. Shorley’s ultimatum more of a threat to Elsevier, I wonder, than a downgraded outlook by a major securities research firm?  I doubt it, but Elsevier is facing both those things, according to this story about a report prepared at Sanford Bernstein.  It their report the research firm expresses the opinion that Elsevier is “in denial” about the need to reform its business practices and about the unsustainable future of the “big deal.”  They predict that Elsevier will “underperform” in the market.  Perhaps direct pressure on shareholder value will get the attention that outcries from libraries, followed by capitulation, has failed to capture.

Finally, I want to note that pricing strategy is getting some interesting attention outside of the library environment as well.  The Social Science Research Council has just released a massive report, three years in the making, from their “Media Piracy Project” about intellectual property piracy in the developing world; there are stories about the report here and here.  Perhaps surprisingly, at least to the content industries, they do not blame moral failings for the rise in piracy and they do not recommend increased enforcement (which makes it ironic that the White House has just released legislative recommendations calling for greater IP enforcement precisely to address piracy).  Instead, the report suggests that poor pricing strategies by the content industries are a major factor behind piracy in the developing world and that new business models will be more effective at addressing the problem.  Certainly it is obvious that ratcheting up IP enforcement has not worked in the past and is unlikely to suddenly provide a miraculous answer.  As for the contention that content industries have followed disastrous pricing policies that undermine their own best interests, librarians have been trying to tell them that for years.

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