ANALYSIS & OPINION

Librarians’ messages to publishers: time to listen?

What happens when librarians are asked to share their thoughts with academic publishers? That was the question behind research carried out in advance of the UKSG conference in April this year, write Bernie Folan and Claire Grace

Library advisory board meetings and other fora can, in many cases, fail to reveal the real issues and conversations that librarians would value, and publishers would benefit from. Although these meetings work well in some cases, many fall short.

Our hope is to facilitate understanding and progress the library/publisher partnership that we believe is essential for a healthy future for scholarly communication.

This article shares the approach and findings we summarised in the lightning talk; we want to hold this conversation as widely as possible.

Methodology

A simple questionnaire was created and we were mindful to try not to lead respondents in any way. Apart from asking for some basic demographic information, respondents could add free text for up to three messages. The question was framed solely to provide guidance for participants: 'Thinking about your experience in your role for the last 6-12 months, what are the three key messages that you would like publishers to hear? You might like to think about areas that have warranted a lot of discussion; feedback that you would like to give changes that have occurred within your organisation or in the external environment challenges you’ve faced or something entirely different.'

Responses received

Some 235 people responded, providing 667 messages to publishers. Respondents were overwhelmingly from the UK and Ireland (more than 80 per cent) and from higher education institutions, with some responses from further education, health-related and ‘other’ organisations. Respondents were employed at both operational and strategic levels. We analysed the text and coded the messages with as few labels as possible. Name and organisation name was optional (to encourage candour); 85 of 235 provided their contact details. This was a very straightforward piece of research.

Emerging themes

The top three areas were:

1. Publisher pricing strategy and business models (1st) and library budgets (5th). These were two separate but related and overlapping themes and we have combined them for reporting purposes. Issues reported included: 

Library budgets are not like they used to be; even where universities are growing, libraries are not. Libraries are expected to do more with less and in many cases cuts are being made year on year. Libraries have not have seen the worst of this yet. There were complaints about above-inflation price increases without good explanations or with rationale that didn’t appear to take the customer into account. Usage-based increases year on year appear to penalise effective use and become unsustainable. Textbooks are often published in new editions with minimal changes.

Charges are made for previously available archives – the complaint being that this leads to a lack of trust between the library and the supplier – and, more importantly, its customers (students and academics). Pricing needs to be tailored more; smaller institutions and further education establishments feel disadvantaged by one-size-fits-all models based on library budgets in HE.

2. Ebook licensing, pricing and business models (2nd)

Ebook issues rose high in the response table; there is confusion and mistrust about different models, dissatisfaction with technologies, printing, downloading and DRM – and, above all, pricing. Libraries want multi-user license models that enable broad access, while there is a need for greater standardisation and consistency in platform functionality. Libraries need vendors to respond quickly, both with purchasing and support issues that arise, and libraries don't want pricing based on the cost of print copies – this doesn’t make sense to them. There needs to be new, collaborative thinking about ‘born digital’ ebook opportunities that take full advantage of technologies and ways that today’s students are starting to work.

3. User experience (UX) and access issues (3rd)

Libraries want publishers to understand that their customers (students and academics) require fast responses to access issues. Customers expect content to be stable and available, and need publishers to resolve their queries quickly, with effective systems for communication. Libraries do not want to pay for publishers’ platforms – just the content. Library users have little or no interest in your brand or technology; they just want easy and accessible access to the content. When publishers do make changes to their platforms, libraries need them to communicate effectively and with a far greater lead-time than many publishers realise and to allow customers to test, test, test before rolling out!

Learning opportunity

The slides summarising this project and the raw data, anonymised and organised into themed worksheets, is available at http://bit.ly/uksg-messages-to-publishers. There is a powerful cumulative effect in reading so many verbatim comments originating from individual librarians. We would urge publishers to take some time to read through the messages. Those librarians that provided names may be willing to answer questions or be contacted in an advisory capacity. We welcome approaches to help assist with this, and to hear your stories of how this research has influenced your organisation.

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