Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Interview with BioOne’s Mark Kurtz

Historically, peer-reviewed journals were published by scientific societies on a non-profit basis. Today scholarly publishing is dominated by a handful of large commercial publishers focused on maximising their profits. This has left small society publishers struggling to survive and libraries unable to afford all the journals they need. Unable to compete with commercial publishers, many societies have given up and sold or outsourced their publishing activities to them—a decision that inevitably leads to a rise in the price of their journals.

Some, however, have sought survival by banding together and creating online collections of their combined journal portfolios. This is the objective of the Learned Journals Collection; and it is the aim of BioOne, which currently provides online access to 167 titles from 126 different non-profit bioscience publishers. I spoke recently with BioOne’s director of business development Mark Kurtz. The conversation was a further reminder for me that while the Open Access (OA) movement now looks set to solve the access problem, it is far from clear that it will solve the more fundamental affordability problem confronting the research community.

Writing in D-Lib magazine in 2000 Rick Johnson—then enterprise director for The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)—pointed out that until the end of World War II scholarly publishing had operated somewhat like a gift economy. As he put it, “For nearly 300 years—since 1665, when the Royal Society of London published the first modern journal, Philosophical Transactions—societies satisfied the need for scholars to communicate among themselves and so maintained their role as the principal scholarly publishers. Research articles were ‘gifted’ to societies by authors and returned to the community in low-cost journals.”

Following the explosion in research funding after the war, however, societies increasingly struggled to cope with the ensuing flood of papers. Spotting a market opportunity, commercial companies quickly filled the vacuum. In doing so, these profit-hungry corporations quickly realised that the demand for scholarly journals is remarkably inelastic. So they did the rational thing, said Johnson, “they raised institutional prices of journals dramatically and relentlessly to exploit the elasticity curve.”

Given this inelasticity, Johnson added, the traditional “circle of gifts” between scholars and their society was replaced not with a real market economy, but a “dysfunctional hybrid.”

Unsurprisingly, the new entrants were soon engaged in an orgy of acquisitions and consolidation—aided by the alacrity with which some societies rushed to outsource their publishing activities to them when they saw how easy it is to generate large sums of money from scholarly journals if your goal is to maximise revenues rather than simply communicate research. By collaborating with commercial companies, these societies realised, they could not only ensure their own survival, but also make a healthy surplus that would allow them to subsidise their other activities.

As a result, today a few large commercial companies own thousands of journals apiece, and are generally able to set their own price.

Serials crisis

Thus was born the serials crisis, which has had the research community in its grip now for several decades. Unable to keep up with the constant increase in subscription prices, libraries began to cancel journals. Publishers responded by increasing their prices further, hoping to make up the lost revenue. This simply triggered further cancellations, and each time the price of a journal was increased a few more libraries cancelled their subscription. It was a vicious cycle that seemed likely to destroy the scholarly communication system.

Determined to staunch the bleeding, publishers came up with a new strategy: they put all their journals online and invited libraries to buy their entire journal portfolio on an all-or-nothing, multi-year basis—a business model that came to be known as the Big Deal.

Why, given their straitened circumstances, would libraries agree to buy even more journals? Why, moreover, would they agree to lock themselves into multi-year contracts? Because if they did so publishers promised them access to a much greater number of electronic journals than they had had print subscriptions to—for the same price.

At first, everyone seemed happy with the Big Deal. When the contracts came up for renewal, however, libraries were confronted with a stark choice: Pay the publisher’s new asking price (inevitably higher) and renew the contract; or go back to buying on a title-by-title basis and face the painful task of telling faculty that they were about to lose access to many of the journals they needed to keep up with developments in their discipline. In the circumstances, most librarians opted to renew the Big Deals.
Soon the Big Deals were devouring most of a library’s budget, forcing it again to start cancelling journals. This time, however, it was the journals of those publishers who did not offer their own Big Deal that were targeted—these were invariably the journals of smaller publishers, and usually those of society publishers.

As a result, more and more societies decided that, if they wanted to survive, they had no option but to fall into the arms of a commercial publisher. This further distorted the market, putting those societies that remained independent under great pressure to partner up too.

Meanwhile, the on-going struggle to pay for journals meant that libraries faced a mounting affordability problem; and as libraries cancelled more and more titles, so researchers were confronted with a growing access problem.


Unsurprisingly, libraries began to search around for solutions to these twin problems. In 1998, for instance, a group of libraries founded SPARC—to “correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system”. And Rick Johnson was recruited as executive director of the new organisation.

Several new initiatives were launched as a result, including SPARC Leading Edge, SPARC Alternative and SPARC Scientific Communities. It was from the latter that BioOne emerged, conceived as an “aggregation of the full-texts of high-impact bioscience research journals.”


If you wish to read the interview with Mark Kurtz please click on the link below. 

I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Big Deal: Not Price But Cost

The September issue of Information Today has published an article I have written on the Big Deal.

The article is available in full here. Below are a few extracts from it: 

What is the issue?

First introduced by Academic Press (AP) in 1996, the Big Deal—in which publishers sell online subscriptions to large bundles of electronic journals—is now the principal means by which academics access research literature.

When it was introduced, the Big Deal was widely seen as a solution to the so-called serials crisis, and both publishers and librarians embraced it enthusiastically.

However, the Big Deal today is the biggest bugbear for librarians and currently the focus of a face-off between U.K. librarians and publishers.

How did an initiative that was once viewed so positively become an object of dislike and derision? What is the solution? 

What is the Big Deal?

A Big Deal “may consist of hundreds of titles—often the publisher’s entire journals’ list—sold in a bundled package to a consortium of libraries on a one-price, one-size-fits-all basis,” according to Ingenta’s Mark Rowse in 2002.

In other words, research libraries combine to buy a single all-you-can eat subscription for a set fee and for a set number of years (usually 3). This fee is invariably based on the cost of the member institutions’ historical print subscriptions.

As Rowse explained, “A publisher might supply a whole list for the price of the sum of the original print subscriptions of a library consortium, with an electronic premium added, generally in the range of between 5 and 15 percent.”

In addition, a built-in percentage increase of around 6% per annum became standard. 

What was the Big Deal’s attraction?

For libraries, the perceived benefit of the Big Deal was “access to a greater number of journal titles and a stronger negotiating position through the purchase of a greater volume of content by large consortia,” says Fred Friend, honorary director scholarly communication at University College London. 

Why has the Big Deal become librarians’ greatest bĂȘte noire 15 years after its introduction?

Ivy Anderson, director of collections at California Digital Library points to three issues, concerns that only actually became apparent over time. These she characterizes as budgetary concerns, policy concerns, and systemic concerns. 

What is the nub of the problem?

[L]ibrarians have never denied that the Big Deal increases usage and lowers per-article costs. Says Anderson, “It has to be acknowledged that the large publisher journal licenses have expanded access and lowered the unit cost of much journal content relative to what the cost of those journals might have been without those deals, particularly when publishers have been willing to cap price increases in exchange for multi-year revenue guarantees.”

However, she points out that the problem is that lower per-unit costs do little to help librarians grapple with the more fundamental affordability problem confronting them.

To understand this problem, Anderson wrote on the liblicense mailing list earlier this year one has simply to juxtapose two well-known charts, “one from ARL documenting the long decline in the proportion of research university funding allocated towards libraries, and another reproduced by STM documenting the equally steady increase in journal publication over time. These trends have long been on a collision course.”
The relative decline of library budgets

What is the publisher’s perspective?

For their part, publishers rightly point out that if the scholarly publishing system is to continue functioning (in its current form at least), they have to be paid for the services they provide. Speaking to me last year, Derk Haank pointed out that journals are currently growing in volume by 6% to 7% per year. As a consequence, he said prices must inevitably go up.

“We have been doing all that is possible over the last couple of years, and will continue to do so to ensure that our price increases are lower than the volume increases. But not increasing our prices is not an option in the long term,” he said.

One can argue about the level of profits publishers ought to be making from the public purse, but Haank’s general point is hard to gainsay.

He added, “I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem. I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it.” For that reason, he suggested, “The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread.”

[Haank also said]:“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit … We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.” 

UK librarians confront publishers

But librarians can hit walls too and ... some already have. Many are simply no longer able to pay publishers’ asking prices. And nowhere is this discontent more evident right now than in the U.K., where the Big Deal first saw the light of day.

Frustrated by the insupportable cost of the Big Deals and angry at what they see as publisher recalcitrance, U.K. librarians have decided that enough is enough.

Two years ago, Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which represents the so-called Russell Group of universities, and whose membership consists of 30 major institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester universities, Imperial College, the London School of Economics, and The British Library, made a decision. With its Big Deal contracts with both Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell due for renewal in January 2012, RLUK instructed JISC Collections (which acts on its behalf in content licensing matters) to take a firm line in renewal negotiations.

Specifically, RLUK is insisting that in future its member institutions are billed in sterling rather than euros, that the bills are staged rather demanded upfront and—most striking of all—that prices are rolled back to where they were in 2007 (with an allowance for RPI).

In practice, says Deborah Shorley, director of library services at London University’s Imperial College (who is chair of the RLUK group leading the revolt), this would effectively amount to a 15% reduction in current prices. 

What can RLUK’s strategy achieve?

RLUK’s strategy would appear to be the biggest challenge to the status quo for 15 years. But is it a potential game-changer?

Let’s put the question another way: If it succeeds in its objective, what will RLUK have achieved? If the fundamental problem faced by the research community is long-term affordability then how can a temporary price reduction resolve the deeper problem? After all, prices will doubtless creep back up again. And librarians will still be handcuffed to an inflexible system.

It is striking that most discussion about the Big Deal too often fails to examine the underlying questions raised by the serials crisis. Questions such as: Can the research community still afford the scholarly communication system it has inherited, or has the cost become too great?

And even if the traditional system is still theoretically affordable, could it be that those who ultimately pay for it (universities, research funders, governments, and ultimately taxpayers) are no longer willing to foot the bill as the costs go higher and higher?

The signs are that the answer to both questions is no. If that is right, then RLUK’s strategy can surely only provide short-term relief. Is there no way out of the impasse? 

A possible answer is mooted in the full 9,000-word article, which is freely available here.