journals + iTunes = ?

Finally got around to reading this tab I’ve had open for ages (sorry, can no longer remember whom to hat tip!) about a pessimistic take on Elsevier’s business model, and was struck by the following:

At the APE Conference in Berlin in January 2010 there were several presentations on article-level impact metrics — it is at least plausible to imagine a world in which the value of the franchise of each individual journal decreases and the value of the franchise of the individual articles increases.

This reminds me very much of the ongoing music-industry business-model freakout, some of which centers on the dissolution of the “album” as an important object in favor of more easily customized and remixed singles.[*] Surely I am far from the first person to have thought of this analogy, and there must be people who understand the business landscape for journals well enough to have thought through this analogy; anyone know where I would find them?

[*] I have to say, sometimes I feel little sorrows that the mix tapes I once spent so long making, and that were once made so carefully for me, may no longer be a meaningful genre. We put so much time into, not just the overall blend of the songs, but story arcs, and striking transitions. But this is only possible when the mix tape is a standalone object that gets played in a single order — it crashes to pieces on the shoals of iTunes.

Which is not to say I regret iTunes; I listen to more diverse music these days, and have a few really useful playlists, and I like the serendipity of shuffle. Just that — few goods are unmixed, and here’s the casualty of progress. (And how d mix tapes fit into the analogy?)

a statistical morsel on the serials crisis

Well there’s a statement that underscores the serials crisis:

At the high end, the Association of Research Libraries, representing the top 122 research libraries in North America, reports that its members have been forced to cut six percent of their subscriptions since the late 1980s, and that figure was only kept that small by chopping 26 percent off their book budgets during the same period.

(Willinsky J. (2003) The Nine Flavours of Open Access Scholarly Publishing. J Postgrad Med, 49:263-7.

(This post, btw, brought to you by open access publishing! I could’ve read the article without it — scholarly database access ftw — but I couldn’t have linked you to it.)

(Also: one of the recurring thoughts i have is about the different ways that debates about library budgets, resources, collection decisions, etc. play out in different disciplines — having seriously studied both math at an engineering school and classics at a liberal arts school I cannot fail to be aware that there are dramatically different assumptions and scholarly use patterns. And does this not underscore how the serials crisis differently affects different disciplines, when journal prices (driven by STEM fields) cut into monographs (crucial for humanities)? I say this not to make trouble for STEM, which I dearly love, but to emphasize that there are social justice and digital divide questions here, even inside one university, one library.)

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.