Scientists: why your access to the literature is about to get worse, and what you can do about it

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!

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"Talk to your librarian now, not later." - I would elaborate on this that if a journal is heavily used, we'll notice that and tend to keep it - librarians often has processes in place to monitor amount of use, and cost per use. However, if a journal is needed as a key resource but the records indicate it's only been used a handful of times, it may be more important to make a case to the librarian/offer to contribute to the subscription cost/tell your colleagues they need to use it or lose it/etc.

New Scientist is available through Science Direct - I have a hard time believing that will change. Besides that, this really sucks. Think of the poor public libraries, too. Our state went back to the InfoTrac collection from Ebsco, but this will surely impact public libraries more than academic since these are popular magazines, for the most part. Man.

If EBSCO says it's exclusive, I'm thinking they mean it. We'll see, I suppose.

Great piece. I'd just like to add, there is one more place libraries will try to find money for resources - they'll cut staff, like my previous place of work did.

As mentioned on Friendfeed, the self-archive and other OA options won't help with these magazines, which are pretty much written by journalists or for money. That said, I suppose OA might get some budget freed up to spend on these resources.

Maybe there's a tipping point approaching, when librarians have to start much more massive cancellations, putting some of the money into innovations like paying for OA publishing (I know I risk the wrath of the dreaded H here). Message to faculty: this golden goose has been stuffed by the publishers, if you want access to science, play your part by ensuring your stuff is open...

By Chris Rusbridge (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

Chris, you caught me in a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. The EBSCO situation isn't directly related to the problem of access to the scientific literature, you're quite right -- but it's new and easy to understand and a fairly decent analogy.

I do think there's going to be a journal-subscription bloodbath. It's been chugging down the tracks for ages, but we've managed to hold it off. No more, I fear.

What I wonder is how many toll-access journals will fold. I should think that even bundled journals will represent a production cost too great for the big-pubs to support and keep their current profit margins. So will the big-pubs start picking them off at the low end? It'd be the sensible thing to do...

As you noted, there is a distinction between the fates of mainstream or popular periodicals and those that are part of the science (and other academic) information exchange. With the popular journals I think that a reasonable (devil's advocate) question would be whether all of these publications deserve to survive.

What's more, Ebsco (and other companies) may indeed be muscling their way to exclusive deals but the publications that agree to the deals are still party to those deals.

If, say, Time magazine permits some excusive aggregating access via Ebsco it is a choice that Time magazine is making as well as Ebsco. They may feel that their back is to the wall economically but the same is true of their competitors each of which will decide on deals that affect access. Increasingly the dynamics of access and affordability are being decided by competition from the flood of information on the Internet. Much of it is simply and unfortunately percieved to be free. But periodical publication is also taking on a web character that will to some extent remove some traditional models of publication.

By William Boatman (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

The knives are coming out: Gale has posted a response to the EBSCO situation.

Note that they explicitly draw the pop-content/journal analogy: "EBSCO has a long history of proactively approaching publishers and offering to pay a premium for exclusive rights to distribute their publications in libraries, having done this for more than a decade with academic journals." So now I don't feel so bad about drawing it myself.

You rock, Dorothea, as always. I'll incorporate your five points in to my talking points for faculty.

BTW, one of my co-workers sent this post to all of the librarians at MPOW today. :)

By Martha Hardy (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

As an MLIS student, I can't help but wonder how (or if) scientists-in-training are being taught about publishing and OA? Anyone know? Seems to me that if established scientists are slower to change, at least we could hope to catch emerging scientists on their way up. Curious if any librarians are engaged in this kind of work.

EBSCO's model is hardly unique: locking in marquee brands/talent/content to burnish collections of lesser appeal happens in many venues, from cereal variety packs, to the performing arts (headliners), to university professorships, to libraries bragging rights about their own 'special collections'amidst a sea of commodity content.

Publishers that do this aren't inherently evil: they are just reflecting a world where some content sources are perceived as more valuable than others - and where they have invested heavily to build that perception. Moreover, I'm sure Time used the historic value of its authoritative content and brand, to drive a significant advance and royalty from Ebsco.

And in the library space, the Big Deal cuts both ways, with the deals often offering libraries access to a far wider range of content than a library could buy individually. (Obviousyly there's lots of padding in the portfolio - the Ukrainian Journal of Numismatics anyone - but it has been librarian's urge for "more content" that drives this as much as publishers urge for marketshare and more dollars.)

And the nearly autonomic call for open access as a panacea is absolutely ridiculous in this case: the public's appreciation of Time's value stems from its brand and packaging - the actual events coverage is widely available elsewhere. But Ebsco - and I suspect not a few libraries - are banking on the chance that a news collection with Time featured front and center, will build greater usage and customer demand, than one without.

What Ebsco is doing is quite canny, especially in a down economy. Because libraries can no longer buy "everything", Ebsco is helping accelerate the library communities' need to choose, hoping clearly to position collections without such branded content (and who in many cases have been too cheap and too late to the party to pony up to acquire such rights) as second best. It may not be pretty or nice - but its how market leaders gain competitive advantage, from publishers to football teams to auction houses to the Red Cross.

Disclosure: Clearly I'm a publisher but I neither work (or worked) nor have financial interest in Ebsco.

By Brandon Nordin (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

There's a very good recent issue of Serials Review with much discussion of the Big Deal. The short answer is, yes, smaller libraries have picked up a lot more content than they'd otherwise have, while large research libraries can't keep up with what they need. The somewhat-longer answer is that those smaller libraries are starting to find themselves in the same fix as the large research libraries.

No open-access Time? Really? Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Huffington Post? Disruptive innovation doesn't just come from publishers disrupting each other. As for branding -- how valuable is mainstream media branding these days? I'm hearing an awful lot of tarnish.

In any case, the value of branding to the scholarly-journal literature is arguable at best. What's Elsevier's brand looking like these days?

I'm not arguing that libraries got themselves into this fix. We absolutely did. We privileged the short-term view over the long-, and it was stupid of us, and we're facing the consequences of our own poor decisions. No question about it.

The question is what we do now. Continuing to whistle past the graveyard isn't going to cut it any longer. There is no more money.

This exclusivity deal situation is not a new one. It has been going on for many years - just not with a set of high profile publications - and is just rearing its ugly head again. I wrote an essay about this nearly ten years ago, pointing out how EBSCO's strategy would start an exclusivity war among the vendors that would set back access for all. See:

What goes around comes around.

Agree, Steven. It's not new... but it may be coming to a head soon.