A line in the sand

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article about library outrage over the recent decision by Harvard Business Publishing to claw back some functionality for key Harvard Business Review articles that many libraries subscribe to on various EBSCO platforms, and to charge a separate licensing fee to recover that functionality.  I also will have an article dealing with this issue on the Library Journal Peer-to-Peer blog (to be published on Thursday). But I want to say one more thing about it.

Harvard Business Publishing is treating this as an issue between themselves and the institutions that subscribe to HBR via EBSCO.  They accuse faculty of using articles as course readings without paying the “required” extra fee, and are disabling the EBSCO versions to force that additional fee.  But this is a skewed perspective.  From the point of view of the subscribing institutions, what is happening is that they are getting less functionality from EBSCO and are now being asked to pay HBP to regain that function.

Properly viewed, I suggest, this is not a dispute between libraries, or faculties, and Harvard.  It is a dispute between Harvard Business Publications and EBSCO over how to divide up the pie.  And libraries should refuse to make the pie bigger just to settle that dispute.

To be clear, the functions that HPB says are being wrongly exploited — printing, downloading and persistent linking — have been a part of the EBSCO databases for years.  HBP would argue that their special licensing terms with EBSCO (which were impossible to convey to faculty, since they make no sense) have always forbidden classroom use.  But the truth is, these technological changes are intended to prevent faculty from even giving students a reference to an article and asking the students to read that article on their own.  HBP wants to recover a separate fee even for that.

So the demands made by HBP really do break the EBSCO database as it has been purchased for years.  If libraries are going to lose functionality they have been buying over that time, they must demand a reduction in the price that is paid to EBSCO.  What is remarkable in this case is that the value of the lost functionality is easily quantifiable; it is represented by the new licensing fee that HBP plans to charge.

This is what I mean by insisting that this is a dispute between EBSCO and Harvard.  Libraries should refuse to pay more significantly more for the same functionality, especially since that functionality is so central to what we buy journal aggregator databases for.  If we have to pay Harvard this license fee, basic fairness suggests that what we pay EBSCO be reduced by the same amount.  EBSCO has been strangely silent during this controversy.  But libraries should draw this line in the sand — we will spend no more than some reasonable percentage increase — a single digit percentage, certainly — over our current EBSCO subscription to get the same functions we had last year.  Harvard and EBSCO can discuss any changes in the way that money is split between them, but that is not our problem.  If Harvard wants $200,000 more from us, we must pay EBSCO $200,000 less.

Few librarians would dispute the proposition that we cannot keep paying massive increases to get the same publications and same capabilities that we had before.  It is unsustainable, and it is unfair.  This price increase, for that is what it is, is especially massive.  If Harvard Business Publications cannot make do with the revenue they have had for decades and suddenly needs millions more, that is a problem with how they run their business, not with what EBSCO subscribers expect to get, and have gotten for years, for their subscription dollars.  And they need to take that demand up with the platform provider, since it is that platform that they are insisting be broken.

Nevertheless, librarians have not been good at actually saying no.  This is the moment to strengthen our spines and refuse to pour more money into the fraught relationship between Harvard and EBSCO; we must let them settle the matter between themselves.  If we do not draw this line in the sand, we will continue to get that sand kicked in our faces.






3 thoughts on “A line in the sand”

  1. What a timely post, my Ebsco rep walked in the door as I was printing out a copy! I told him that they should have walked away from the deal, that this could be the beginning of the end of mass databases.

  2. I very much appreciate your taking this issue on and bringing it out to the public. We have run into this issue again and again this year with several of our journals. We are a medical school library, and biomedical journals have important supplemental materials and e-pub ahead of print items. Most publishers are making these unavailable in Ebsco databases. We are forced to subscribe to the journals if we want this content. Our researchers want this content, and we are often forced into this corner. Ebsco shrugs their shoulders and blames the publisher. It is definitely a new publisher trick- I don’t think there is much Ebsco can do about it. The publishers have figured out how they can generate exposure to their content through Ebsco but withhold the really good stuff to entice subscibers.

    Publishers have to make money too. I don’t know what the answer is, but I really appreciate you exploring these issues.

  3. It is time for Ebsco and the publishers to figure out how they want to split their profits and the money the database aggregators get from the library. I couldn’t agree more that it is not the library’s problem. As in this case, it is Harvard’s and Ebsco’s problem. Excellent post.

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