Monthly Archives: April 2012

Publish or Perish (and Profit): The Academic/Scientific “Information Publishing” Struggle Enters Its Final Phase

In my most recent post on this subject, Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire:  Radical Change in the Academic Publishing Ecosystem, I reported on an intensifying battle between the creators and users of scientific/academic information, on the one hand, and, on the other, the traditional publishers of this information (which are trying to maximize their shareholder value in the midst of a real Kuhnian  revolution and significant transformation of what fundamentally  constitutes publishing and distribution models).

A new development of late, in the form an advisory issued by Harvard Library (Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal PricingMajor Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained), describes the following economic conditions:

  • Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.
  • Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands.
  • Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices.
  • These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

The conclusion drawn:

It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently.

Wow! Little commentary is needed here on my part.  What is happening is startlingly clear (and different ways of referring to it).  But what happens next will be the big question, as (a) creators and users push back, (b) new competitive publishing and distribution models and organizations arise (such as INFORMS, et al), and (c) traditional publishers try to milk profits from cash cows in the short-term while trying to innovate and diversify in to “value-added” discovery and collaboration platforms.

In the mean time, Harvard’s directives to its faculty include the following:

  • Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.
  •  If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning.
  •  Contact professional organizations to raise these issues. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations.
  •  Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options.
  •  Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals.
  • Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system,
  •  Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public.

The tide is turning.