serials subscription economics: or, monopolies, italics, and cannibalism

So the husband and I were talking yesterday about the new EBSCO monopoly on certain periodicals, after I read Dorothea Salo’s post on the matter (now BoingBoinged). And he was wondering, so really, what’s the issue here? What’s the appeal of these database vendors? And a BoingBoing commenter wonders, “the content providers have decided to sell their content through only one vendor…is that not their right?”

Salo addresses some of this in a follow-up post, but I want to as well — a scattershot Things What Might Not Be Apparent If You Are Not A Librarian post.

* One of the intriguing aspects of getting your journal access electronically is that it’s more like renting than owning. Different vendors may have rights to different date ranges of the back issues, and you may have any number of contractual limitations on your database access, and if you stop having a contract with a vendor, then no, you might not have access to the back issues you had access to yesterday. It’s not like a print collection, where you paid to buy the physical thing — and it came with limitations, like lack of fulltext search and the need for ever-increasing shelf space to store — but you *have* the thing until it falls to pieces, anyway, even if you cancel the subscription. You stop leasing your database access, you no longer have back issues. Now, maybe you get them through another vendor — if you have contracts with multiple vendors, and publishers have contracts with multiple vendors, then you may still have access through other means, albeit not necessarily to the same range of back issues or through the same interface or with the same features.

* But maybe you don’t have access through another vendor, and that’s the issue with the current EBSCO deal. If you want to have access to certain publications, you have to deal with EBSCO. And this connects with two other issues:

1) EBSCO, as a monopoly power, can set forth whatever crazy terms it wants. (“But if they’re too crazy you can just refuse,” I hear you saying. Yes, but see below.) For instance, maybe you just want to read Time, but they will only sell you Time in a package deal containing dozens of other titles such Injury and Abdominal Imaging and The Lady’s Magazine or Polite Companion for the Fair Sex and you really, honestly, do not care about these publications (all real EBSCO titles fyi), but you have to pay for them if you want Time.

2) Now replace Time with, say, Science or Nature or whatever the incredibly critical journal is that your patrons absolutely cannot live without. The current EBSCO monopoly is over popular press magazines, and I imagine it will be incredibly irritating to public libraries who can no longer afford (see below) to stock them, but if you are a university and your library cannot afford to stock the marquee journals for your top academic programs, this goes way beyond “irritating”. So take the current EBSCO deal as a harbinger of things to come, and you see why it’s worth setting up some barricades.

* I owe you one more “see below”, and that’s cost. Serials are very expensive. People have been cancelling print subscriptions to make way for them, sure, but they’ve also been scaling back their monograph acquisitions just to keep up with serials. Serials prices have escalated enormously and library budgets, well, haven’t. MIT spends seven million a year on serials — yes, they’re big, and yes, as a nearly-all-science institution they depend unusually heavily on them — but this should give you a sense of the absurdly large chunks of change involved.

The thing that should make this — from your perspective, from a patron perspective, not just a librarian perspective — a problem, the thing that should make this more than something to brush off as businesses-doing-business — is that monopoly power over access to key periodicals takes away a major chunk of libraries’ negotiating power, when their institutional contexts may not allow them not to say no to those periodicals, and when serials budgets are already cannibalizing everything in their path. What you will see, as a patron, is non-serials acquisitions and services being cut merely to maintain the status quo of subscriptions. And if that is not something you like, librarians are going to need to know that their institutions will back them up if they need to take scorched-earth negotiating positions with vendors.

10 thoughts on “serials subscription economics: or, monopolies, italics, and cannibalism

  1. Two comments. First, yeah, this sounds very unpleasant, and I’m a big fan of open access to scientific publications. (We pretty much have that in string theory via, but other fields aren’t so lucky.) And second, random note, I don’t know Dorthea but her husband David is a friend of mine (though we’ve yet to meet in person).


  2. I don’t know Dorothea either except via her blogly prominence, but that’s awesome!

    And yeah, open access is something a lot of librarians are pushing strongly, and urging their patrons to support. arxiv is an excellent, but special, case (that she talks about a lot).


  3. Yes, but researchers are cutting the library out of the loop more and more. Now, my field is both new and moving very quickly, and so my observations may not translate to other branches of CS (much less physics). But having said that, the primary practical purpose of a journal to me is as a signaling mechanism, not as a distribution channel. That is, I may be impressed that a paper was published in The Journal of Very Impressive Results*, but I then download the paper from the author’s webpage. I don’t use the library or the journal’s website unless the paper is from before, oh, 1995. If a paper is more recent than that, I can almost always find the paper through Google.

    Of course, this leads to a culture where papers are stored in mutable form and where the author can ‘improve’ them at will. This, in turn, raises a whole other set of issues regarding archiving, and leads to a culture where every paper has a half-dozed versions (the technical report, the conference version, the journal version, the *fixed* journal version, etc.) but that’s another topic.

    * To be more specific, The Very Impressive Results Workshop. Conferences are the primary peer-review mechanism in my field, not journals. But as many conference-proceedings are also published by places like Elsevier and Springer, I suspect this is a distinction without a difference for this conversation. But now that I think about it, many conference proceedings are also published by the IEEE and the ACM. How can I find out if those publishers are part of The Big Deal as well?


    1. Yes, but researchers are cutting the library out of the loop more and more

      I know…*whimper* “How to stay relevant in the internet age” is one of those ongoing, obsessive discussions in the field, trust me.

      I do think it’s important to be aware of disciplinary distinctions in these questions, though. You’re in a field where papers tend to be on authors’ web sites, Steuard’s in a field where they’re in arxiv, and both of you are in fields where papers more than 10 years old are unlikely to be relevant (so chances are the papers you care about were born digital anyway). These are not true in all fields. When I put my classicist hat on, many of the papers I care about are pre-Google and may only be available to me on paper, or, if electronic, only through vendors — the authors never digitized them because it wasn’t an option at the time. And I gather, though I don’t really know, that the degree of self-archiving varies from field to field, and the likelihood that authors will retain copyright or other access/ownership, or insist on open-access availability, or even realize that it is an option to demand this, also varies a lot by field.

      I do not know how you would track down what licensing the IEEE, ACM, etc. have entered into (nor would I be surprised if different libraries have access to them under different conditions). If I search for “acm proceedings” at the Simmons library, the online results I see are all available through the “ACM Digital Library”; looking at the MARC record for a random element of the ACM digital library, I see a note “Access to electronic resources limited to Simmons College students, faculty and staff.” and a URL “”, both of which suggest that the ACM self-publishes but makes its content available through some sort of non-open-access licensing arrangement with libraries. Whether they have also contracted with some third-party vendor to which Simmons does not subscribe, of course I can’t tell from here (you are free to mine results in your local catalog, of course :). For “ieee proceedings”, a lot of that is actually paper, and many of the electronic versions are also ACM Digital Library (in many cases these are joint conferences), but I came across an ebrary version as well, so I suspsect IEEE stuff is available through (and spread out among) a variety of vendors.

      You could, of course, also ask whoever the electronic resources and/or serials librarian is where you are. Librarians generally like making connections with their patrons ;).


  4. One more thought: what is The Big Deal doing to the rate at which journals cease publishing? One side-effect of bundling like this is (sometimes) that the popular items in the bundle draw in many more buyers than the less-popular items would get on their own. As a result, the bundle essentially ‘taxes’ the popular items to support the less popular ones. (The less popular ones also get more exposure than they would otherwise.) So, might a side effect of The Big Deal be that Abdominal Imaging stays in business longer?


    1. I wouldn’t be surprised (in fact the Polite Companion one above was published only in the 1700s and is part of a database of historical materials, so in this case it’s much more widely accessible than it would otherwise be). Of course in our conversation Grant was also wondering the reverse — that if access to the marquee journals gets too onerous, do they stop being the marquee journals as people flock to things their libraries can actually afford? Not sure I buy that — or, at any rate, the process would be slow — but as you and Steuard note, there are mechanisms for fields settling on things other than journals as primary distribution channels.

      I imagine there’s a parallel to cable television here, but I also don’t know anything about the economics of that market.


  5. I think The Big Deal is despicable, but is only to be expected by for-profit publishers. I think a cartel is best beaten by a counter cartel, i.e. by making The Big Deal unsalable. In this digital age, there is no longer a monopoly on the means of mass distribution, and thus no reason to capitulate to exorbitant extortionist practices.

    Sure, as long as They have Nature and The Lancet etc., most institutions would feel they have to subscribe. But do they, really? Absolutely _no one_’s interests are served by The Big Deal except for the publishers!

    The importance of things like Nature today is only its editorial control and stamp of approval, not the actual physical delivery of the texts to the consumer. This fact can and should be exploited to bring about the end of the academic publishing cartel.


    1. Folks like Nature are in a weird situation. More and more of their value is provided to their authors (who get the prestige) and less and less to their readers (who get access to papers they in most cases could have googled), but they only have a model to charge their readers because to charge the authors is regarded as a pay-to-play scummy business model.

      This is possibly one of the reasons that conferences/workshops/proceedings are holding on better than traditional journals — fewer ethical rules against charging the people who benefit, and so a more stable economic model.

      As an aside, that would also imply that we will see scandals moving from the Social Text model to the SCIGen model…


  6. Hi Andromeda,

    Thank you for participating in and encouraging active discussion around the practice of exclusive licensing agreements and their potential impact on the library community.

    Pat Sommers, Gale’s president, has shared his perspective on the two core strategies adopted by leading aggregators today. Based on the content of your previous entry, we thought you and your readers might be interested in these new insights.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation.


    Harmony Faust
    Marketing Programs Manager
    Gale, a part of Cengage Learning


    1. Thanks for stopping by! It’s nice to see Gale’s perspective on the issue, and certainly anyone who’s concerned with accessibility and usage — if by that is meant, at least in part, “interface design” — is doing good in the world (a point driven home to me yesterday, when doing homework with a regrettable interface (not Gale’s)…) I’m a fan of widgets, too. And, of course, I’m a huge fan of a philosophical stance against exclusive licenses; competition is good for both libraries and vendors, really.

      Thanks again for stopping by.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s