Saturday, March 14, 2009

Usage-based pricing and open access as a catalyst for change

Bill Hooker on Open Reading Frame is fooling around with numbers, looking at the cost of scholarly journals on a usage basis at the University of California libraries. Usage-based pricing is a harmful model for scholarly communication, a concept I have written about in-depth in this book chapter. One reason is that usage-based pricing inevitably discourages use. Usage-based pricing is a good model for dealing with scarce resources (e.g., per-page charges for photocopying), but a bad model for scholarship in electronic form (think tax on reading after the first copy, there is virtually no cost to further dissemination). Happily, since I wrote this book chapter in 2005, we have witnessed the Dramatic Growth of Open Access. This presents some interesting opportunities for libraries dealing with the current economic crisis. If you have resources where pricing is based on usage, why not promote open access resources? Perhaps this will decrease usage of the paid subscription, so that your library can move to a lower pricing tier the following year.

While researchers need the latest research in their field regardless of where it is published, first and second year students are often just learning how to read scholarly literature. If faculty review these assignments to see whether there are open access resources that can substitute for subscription-based resources, perhaps this can drive a sufficient decrease in usage so that the library can move to a lower usage tier the following year.

Another possibility is to simply set up library resources to display open access resources before subscription-based resources.

In either case, there need not be any barrier to accessing subscription resources. In the first scenario, the student is only required to read the open access articles, but could still be encouraged to pursue as much further reading as they desire. Similarly, the second scenario makes it easy for the student who really only needs to read an article or two, to fulfill their needs using open access resources, without presenting any real barriers to the student whose research needs are more in-depth.

Bill Hooker also points out that there are a few journals at U Cal (e.g., some Elsevier journals), where the subscription cost is not that much different from what pay-per-use would cost. If methods like these were employed at U Cal, could the balance be tipped so that U Cal would clearly save money by switching to pay-per-use? Without open access, this would clearly be a harm to scholarly communication. However, with open access, this could be a catalyst to further change. If the monies saved were redirected to support for open access, this could further decrease the need to use expensive resources, resulting in further savings which can then be redirected to more open access support, creating a positive open access cycle, in counter to the negative cycle of the pricing crisis. The publisher could react by increasing their pay-per-use price. For U Cal, this could be a bit of a dilemma; but on the other hand, it would decrease the probability of success of the pay-per-use model, thus avoiding a harm to scholarship.

This post is part of the Essential Efficiencies series.