Making headlines in libraryland is EBSCO’s announcement of exclusive access to several popular periodicals in electronic form. (See also this reaction, which includes a partial list of the publications that will be exclusive to EBSCO.)
Essentially, libraries who want their patrons to be able to access Time, New Scientist, and other such publications will have two choices: buy an EBSCO database subscription, or buy the publications in print. If print is undesirable, EBSCO is the only choice.
It doesn’t take a Nobel-level economist to guess what this monopoly on popular content will do to EBSCO’s database pricing. In libraries, we don’t have to bother guessing: we have been living this problematic process for decades. We call it the “Big Deal,” a phrase coined by University of Wisconsin-Madison General Library System director Ken Frazier in this much-cited D-Lib article from 2003.
The process is simple: buy up popular journals (or arrange exclusive access to their online contents, as EBSCO has done), bundle them with less-popular journals, then sell the whole for much more than you could get if you sold all of them, good journals and bad, separately. (The situation is much more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you further details. Ask a librarian if you want the whole story!)
Here’s the kicker. Libraries are out of money to spend on these deals. Seriously, there is no more. We have banded into consortia to improve our buying power. We have cancelled lesser-used unbundled journals by the hundreds. We have plundered monograph budgets (and destroyed many university presses in the process, to our earnest dismay). We have pleaded for better funding. We have substituted document delivery and interlibrary loan, neither of which is free, but both of which improve access. The well is bone-dry? yet the prices keep going up.
The situation has been bad for a long time, honestly. In my judgment, it’s about to get considerably worse, economic pressures being what they are. However many journals you currently have access to, you can expect to have access to many fewer in the next one to three years. I’m not close enough to serials purchasing to guess percentages; comments are open to librarians with better-educated guesses than mine.
“If I can’t get it right away online, I don’t read it,” said a chemist at Science Online 2010. (Names omitted to protect the guilty!) Expect “right away online” to become “in a day or three” or even “not at all” much more often. Likewise, expect the number of your disciplinary colleagues who read your published work to decline, possibly precipitously depending on your publishing and archiving decisions.
Not a pretty picture, is it? Here’s what you can do to protect yourself:
- Talk to your librarian now, not later. If you need to protect access to a particular journal, the time to talk to the bibliographer/selector/liaison/serials librarian responsible for decision-making in your area is now. After a journal is cancelled is too late.
- Self-archive. You need those citations, especially as article-level metrics begin to thrive, and some citations come from people for whom if it’s not online and immediately available, it doesn’t exist.
- Choose, use, and evangelize open-access journals. If you’re going to wind up limited substantially to what you can find freely online, isn’t it to your advantage to increase the amount of material available freely online?
- Support open-access policies where they’re in play. Whether at your institution, in your scholarly society, or nationally, open-access policies are springing up like weeds. Support them. Vocally. If they’re not happening where you are, you can start the ball rolling!
- Be aware of what’s going on where you publish, and where your scholarly societies are positioning themselves. A librarian can help you with this, saving you research time.
Researchers could, if they chose, control the system that disseminates their findings. They have not thus far chosen to do so. As a librarian, I want to see that change, not least because I think change is necessary for the continued progress of science.
Too many barriers. Too much money. Too little change!