How do you know?

It is hardly a surprise that my last few posts, dealing as they do with the economics of distributing scholarship and the potential impact of taking the issue of sustainability seriously across the board, would generate a good deal of criticism.  My usual response to critical comments is to simply approve them for posting and let the criticism stand so that readers can make up their own minds.  But there is one comment I do wish to respond to.  Interestingly, it was not one that was posted to my blog at all, although it was dealing with my post reporting success on the White House petition for public access to taxpayer-funded research and criticizing the report from the Association of Learned, Professional and Society Publishers about the alleged impact of such policies.

The discussion in question was forwarded to me by a colleague, and was taking place on an e-mail list to which I do not subscribe (so I cannot post a link here).  The specific challenge to which I want to respond related to my assertion that public access to scholarly articles is not the reason why libraries cancel journal subscriptions.  A former publishing executive, in a longer e-mail, asked how I knew this and accused me of making an unsupported assertion.  It is a fair question, and I am happy to report on how I know that public or open access is not the principal, or even a significant, driver of journal cancellations; doing so gives me the opportunity to link to a couple of valuable resources.

I know that public access is seldom, if ever, considered by librarians when dealing with subscription cancellations, first, because I have been a librarian for over twenty years and have been involved in or aware of a large number (larger than I would like) of cancellation processes.  Never once have I heard a librarian say “we can cancel that one because all the contents are available on various websites.”  First, that would almost never be true.  Second, deciding on that basis would not be serving our patrons’ needs, which is what we strive to do even when our budgets contract.

The second reason I know that public access is not a big factor in journal cancellations is because I recently read the report prepared by Elliot Maxwell for the Committee for Economic Development on The Future of Taxpayer-Funded Research: Who Will Control Access to the Results?  In that report, Maxwell takes a sustained and carefully documented look at many of the claims about the disasters that would befall for-profit publishing based on the National Institutes of Health public access mandate.  His overall conclusions are, first, that there is no evidence that such policies have adversely impacted the STM publishers who complained so vociferously about them and have twice tried to push legislation to have them reversed. Maxwell makes two salient points.  First, it is increasing prices, coupled with flat library budgets, that account for any rising rate of cancellations (which is the same point I made in my blog post).  And second, that at the same time they were predicting disaster to policy makers, for-profit STM publishers were painting a more glowing picture of the future to financial analysts about the prospect of a return to 4-5% growth rates as we move past the economic downturn.  As Maxwell says, “the last four years [he is referring to 2007 – 2011, a period which actually includes the worst of the downturn] have been marked by an increase in both the number and subscription prices of STM journals.” (p. 15)  While this may not be good news for libraries, it certainly casts doubt on the gloom and doom being forecast if public access mandates grow.  And it is further evidence that such mandates do not lead, contrary to the ALPSP report, directly to library cancellations.

Finally, the best evidence of the real reasons behind journal subscription cancellations is a more detailed survey commissioned by the publishing industry itself.  One of the problems with the ALPSP report is, as I said, that the question it asked was too vague and lacked context.  As it turns out, the Publishers Communication Group did a larger survey of cancellations between 2007 and 2011 that asked librarians about actual decisions they had made, rather than posing a hypothetical question.  When asked why they made a particular decision to cancel a specific journal, the thousands of librarians queried listed four principal reasons — budget cuts, low usage, faculty recommendations and the desire to end subscriptions to the same content in different formats (cancelling print to focus on electronic access).  These four reasons where cited for over 60% of the cancellations, while free public access was mentioned less than 5% of the time.

So this is why I think I know that public access does not directly lead to library journal cancellations.  But this is really a side-issue.  As I said in the original post, even if public access reaches a scale in which it does imperil journal subscriptions, that does not mean we should not pursue it.  The evidence for the value of open access is becoming overwhelming, and the claims that it will harm scientific research (as opposed to for-profit publishing) or prove unsustainable are increasingly easy to refute.  If I had my way (and I seldom do), the conversations about scholarly communications would move forward based on three broad principles:

  1. Open access is beneficial for researchers, for scholarship and for society.  We should be looking for ways to move toward more openness, not resisting those movements at every turn.
  2. Sustainability is a valid question for all methods of distributing the results of research.  It is unfair to complain that digital or open access models are not sustainable, but to ignore evidence of the same problem (such as the financial difficulties that led to the decision to close the University of Missouri Press) in regard to traditional publishing models.
  3. Libraries are not (necessarily) seeking the end of publishing as we have known it, but they are seeking better ways to use their budgets to support teaching and research.  The ideal situation would be a genuine effort amongst all the stakeholders to find the most efficient and sustainable ways to disseminate scholarship, and the partnerships between researchers, institutions, scholarly societies, publishers and libraries that will best move that goal forward.

2 thoughts on “How do you know?”

  1. Kevin, I agree with your statement, “The ideal situation would be a genuine effort amongst all the stakeholders to find the most efficient and sustainable ways to disseminate scholarship, and the partnerships between researchers, institutions, scholarly societies, publishers and libraries that will best move that goal forward.” As a teacher of research writing and as a doctoral student, I must locate and study journal articles frequently, and I would like to do so with ease. The partnerships you mention would be critical to finding “efficient and sustainable ways to disseminate scholarship,” but partnerships will not work well if the partners do not share a common goal. The stakeholders who are committed to disseminating scholarship might work well with others, but the for-profit stakeholders may have a goal that trumps dissemination–profit! Which of the partners do you think may be driven by a desire for profit more than they desire to efficiently disseminate scholarship?

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