Thursday, August 19, 2010

Worlds of differences between publishers (economics 101)

Many librarians have never studied economics. Now that we are playing a key role in transforming scholarly communication, we need to know a little about the topic, at least as it applies to the stuff we work with. This is true whether we're in library management, collections, or at the front lines working with faculty on scholarly communication issues. This post is the first in a series designed to provide an easy reading introduction to librarians on this topic and for this purpose, called Economics 101.

Today's topic introduces the concept of the worlds of differences that exist between publishers. I will be using one of my favorite examples - since it is both so extreme, and from LIS. Emerald's Library Management, with a subscription price of Euro 11819 according to Ulrich's (that's 15,138 USD by today's conversion rate), costs about 190 times as much as ACRL's College and Research Libraries (similar in number of peer-reviewed articles per year), at a maximum non-member non-US rate of 80 USD. While this is an extreme example, it nonetheless illustrates an important point: the journals of the for-profit commercial sector can cost not only more than the not-for-profits, the commercials often cost a very great deal more.

This is important, because if we would like to see a healthy, affordable future for scholarly communication, we need to understand and support the often small, not-for-profit publishers, whether they are our own, as in the case of C&RL, or help our faculty members to see the importance of supporting such journals in their own disciplines.

Following are a few ways to think about this:

  • When it comes time for renewal, budgets are tight, and of course we want publishers to keep their prices down. But does it make sense to ask the same sacrifices of a publisher of a journal that costs only $80 and another very similar journal that costs more than $15,000?
  • If we thought about the important work that ACRL does and how low that $80 subscription ($70 in the U.S., by the way) is, and asked ACRL to double the price for C&RL, and negotiated with Emerald for a 1% decrease in the cost for Library Management, we would save money (1% of $15,000 is $150 - $80 for doubling the cost of C&RL). We would save $70.
  • Or, why not ask Emerald to be just a bit more reasonable, and halve the price of Library Management to just $7,500 U.S.? This would save us enough money to pay for subscriptions to 94 journals like C&RL.
The irony is, that when we explain the dire straights of library budgets to publishers, it is the ACRLs of this world who are the first to step up and assure us that they will keep prices flat.

A simple way to keep this difference in mind in the field: when comparing journals or publishers and their pricing changes over the years, keep in mind the actual price - not just the percentage of increase or decrease. A 1% increase to C&RL is $.80; a 1% increase to Library Management is $150, almost double the full subscription cost of C&RL.

This post is the first in the series Economics 101. While the examples here are subscription-based journals, overall the purpose of understanding the economics is transitioning to open access. What's the connection? Publishers that have never gouged anyone, but have rather always kept their prices reasonable, often (like C&RL) have a well-deserved reputation for high quality. If they depend on library subscription dollars - let's help them to make the transition to open access. When I talk to people involved with many of these journals, what I hear is that many of them would love to make such a transition - they just need a little help, and if librarians step up to help them, many would welcome the help.