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.
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.