Pressure over prices

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The proposed boycott of Nature Publishing Group by the University of California illustrates the plight of cash-strapped libraries worldwide. Rebecca Pool looks for an answer

It’s no secret that academic libraries worldwide are facing the most difficult economic challenges ever. Libraries’ acquisition budgets throughout Europe are at best static while in North America, up to 25 per cent cuts were reported by members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) from 2009 to 2010.

As ARL executive director Charles B Lowry warns: ‘If there is any message that one should take away from our data, it is that there is close to zero tolerance and little capacity for price rises next year and beyond.’

Laine Farley, executive director of the University of California’s digital research library, California Digital Library, would agree. Recently at the centre of the well-publicised row in which UC threatened Nature Publishing Group (NPG) with a total boycott following proposed price rises, Farley is adamant the industry needs to change (see ‘A very public affair’, page 20).

So far, many libraries have been dealing with budget reductions via a range of cost-cutting strategies, including reduced monograph purchases, cancelled journal titles and a shift from print to electronic-only journals. Librarians are also continually negotiating prices with publishers; as Farley points out, many publishers that UC works with have agreed to either no or very low price rises. But these tactics cannot be used indefinitely.

‘[Price negotiations] have been quite successful, but once we get to the end of this, we’re back in the same boat,’ says Farley. ‘It’s not just about adjusting to what we can pay. The whole model is crazy, it doesn’t make sense. The way prices are set, the market, and the relationship between the consumers and producers are not right.’

As she points out, libraries purchase journals on behalf of faculty who play no part in valuing the product. ‘They [the academics] sometimes don’t even realise we’re paying for these materials so there is no market force to say what’s valuable and what isn’t. There is nothing to modulate the price.’

Following the proposed NPG boycott in June of this year, Farley now realises she is far from being alone in her frustrations over budget constraints and rising publisher prices. ‘Some feedback from other institutions is that when their faculty heard of this, they got all excited and said, “well, why aren’t we doing this?”,’ she says. ‘However, we’ve been surprised at the attention it’s received from outside of UC and internationally even. It seems we have really touched a nerve in the community.’

Steve Bosch, budgeting and licensing librarian, from the University of Arizona, and Kittie Henderson, director of the academic and law divisions at EBSCO, are authors of the information services provider’s Serials Price Projections for 2011. They predict price increases for 2011 will be moderate, between four per cent and six per cent, in the same range as increases for 2010. But, as they also point out, a recent EBSCO survey revealed that 80 per cent of publisher respondents will use price increases as a primary driver of revenue growth for 2011.

‘Even if there are no more changes in economic conditions, the business models that require libraries to invest more money when the dollars have been cut, are not sustainable,’ he says. ‘Libraries are already existing where [their budgets] don’t cover their contractual agreements, so what do they do? They slice everything they can and invoke their exiting clauses.’

Clive Parry, SAGE

Given these trading conditions, both Bosch and Henderson expect the industry will see more disagreements between publishers and libraries. ‘I know of a number of dust-ups the industry just hasn’t heard about,’ Henderson says. ‘But in a prolonged disagreement everyone loses. Both parties want a win-win situation so the publishers, libraries and middlemen – vendors like ourselves – are looking for ways to make it work.’

All change

So what are the ways forward? According to John Cox of UK-based publishing consultancy, John Cox Associates, today’s pricing models are generally based on what was spent on printed journals in the mid-1990s; even ‘big deal’ packages are typically based on libraries’ print holdings. Budget constraints aside, this is not a rational basis for moving forward when most academic libraries are migrating towards an all-electronic journal environment.

Other pricing methods now under consideration by librarians and publishers include online-only pricing, usage-based pricing, as well as tiered pricing according to, say, faculty and student population – that is, full-time equivalent employees.

However, each scheme is far from perfect. Take usage-based pricing, that is, relating price paid to the number of downloads, for example. How reliable is the usage data? How do you price new acquisitions when no usage data exists? Meanwhile, basing pricing on faculty and student population works in countries like the UK where detailed records of attendees are maintained but in some overseas institutions, registration is less rigorous.

While no easy route forward exists, progress on pricing models is underway. Most large publishers are already considering online-only pricing models, separate from print prices. For example, last year Elsevier announced it hoped to apply tiered electronic pricing to more of its publications, according to an institution’s research type, size and geography, to ‘develop pricing structures that match the needs of different customers’.

‘Publishers aren’t just sitting with their heads in the sand,’ says Henderson of EBSCO. ‘They have already said they see the big deal getting unbundled and have to find new ways of doing things.’

And publishers also face cost pressures, as Clive Parry, global marketing director of SAGE, points out: ‘There is a modest increase on 2010 pricing [at SAGE], reflecting rising costs passed on to us by our suppliers – printers/manufacturing, distribution, technology – and the commitments we make to the societies and associations we work with. Where we have taken on journals (from other publishers or societies), we have again had pricing commitments that we had to fulfil.’

While moving from print to electronic saves money, and this is often reflected in the prices libraries pay for e-only titles, electronic delivery does bring a range of new costs. For example, according to Parry, when SAGE takes on a new title there are costs for digitisation; providing access to backfile content; additional hosting costs; and fees for ensuring adequate archiving and preservation; as well as direct commitments to the societies and associations themselves.

‘We have, however, worked hard to keep prices down for our customers. We have invested in numerous cost-efficiency initiatives this year, including offshoring the production of a number of our journals to India, and cutting down wherever possible on frequency increases and page extent increases,’ Parry adds.

Faculty input

Pricing models aside, Farley of California Digital Library believes that publishers should also reward, more readily, the input from faculty members to the publishing process. ‘Value is added by the publishers but the fact is that the faculty are providing the content and the peer review,’ she says.

John Cox

Indeed, as she stated in her letter to the UC Faculty on a proposed NPG boycott: ‘An analysis by CDL suggests that UC articles published in Nature alone have contributed to at least $19 million dollars in revenue to NPG over the past six years… Moreover, UC faculties supply countless hours serving reviewers, editors and advisory board members.’ Although NPG stated it was ‘utterly confused’ by the revenue claims, the publisher acknowledged the value faculties add to the publishing process is ‘critical to our existence’.

Librarians are taking other action too. As Henderson highlights: ‘Libraries have been dealing with [these issues] for years, but what’s new now is the budget situation has gotten so tight that people are looking for their own solutions.’

She describes how small, less-research oriented institutions are switching from big deal packages to pay-per-view models to counter cash problems, while open-access titles are being adopted. ARL’s Charles B Lowry also emphasises a key future role for digital legacy collections and believes money can also be saved by more multi-institutional collaboration. Citing the Hathi Trust as one example, he highlights how this co-owned digital archive library of materials was formed by ARL members and is used by 26 libraries.

And then, of course, there are boycotts. In November 2003, Elsevier’s journal, Cell Press, was the target of a boycott initiated by UC, again over pricing issues. UC successfully negotiated a new price that was less than that of the previous year.

Also, there is no denying that the latest threat to NPG publications by the University of California is getting results. In Farley’s words, ‘productive discussions, are now underway, and a resolution should be achieved ‘within a few months’.

As Bosch of the University of Arizona points out, libraries and publishers do not want to give up on each other, it simply is not in each other’s best interests. But, as he adds: ‘If the University of California had to publicly tweak NPG on the nose to get a result, then so be it.’

A very public affair

In June of this year, the California Digital Library (CDL), sent a letter to University of California faculty members saying it was considering ceasing subscriptions to NPG journals in protest at claimed price rises of 400 per cent, bringing the annual cost of a licence for 67 journals to ‘well over’ $1 million. CDL also urged faculty to stop submitting papers to NPG journals and to stop carrying out peer review and other editorial functions.

‘By and large the faculty was very positive,’ says CDL executive director Laine Farley. ‘Concerns were expressed on promotion and tenure, but the faculty senate committee said, “It’s worth taking a stand here and we’re behind it.”’

Nature Publishing Group has declined to comment but in a public statement wrote: ‘The implication that NPG is increasing its list prices by massive amounts is entirely untrue. A seven per cent cap on annual list price increases is currently in place… CDL has been on a very large, unsustainable discount for many years, to the point where other subscribers, both in the USA and around the world, are subsidising them.’

The proposed boycott has since been called off and both parties are exploring new publishing models, with a resolution expected within months. Together, the 10 UC campuses have more than 100 libraries, collectively making up the largest research/academic library in the world.