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Hiding the costs of information

February 2, 2012

The other day, as I was trying to find a journal article, I noticed that the link to the full text of the article was labeled “Free to you.”  This amused and frustrated me, because I knew exactly how much the library was paying for access to this journal.  It was most definitely not free, but the costs had already been paid.  In this case, the publisher was doing a great job of hiding the cost of this item from the end users.

Hiding the true cost of information resources won't do us any good. Image courtesy of flickr user TruShu.

As I thought about this, I realized that libraries have largely been complicit in this campaign to shield end users from the real costs of information.  If I’m being honest, we’re not just complicit, but we actively and purposefully engage in practices that leave patrons in the dark about the sticky issue of money.

For example, most libraries don’t actively talk to faculty about the costs of the journals they subscribe to.  As a result, faculty don’t see the annual much-larger-than-inflation price increases that libraries pay for this content.  Librarians have been talking about a “serials Crisis” for 30 years, but just last week an online petition to boycott Elsevier has gained momentum.

At my institution, we promote interlibrary loan as a way to fill in the gaps in our journal coverage, but we never tell patrons (faculty or students) what it costs for us to acquire these materials. (It isn’t just the personnel costs.  We sometimes pay fees to lending libraries, and we often have to pay copyright clearance fees if we borrow too many articles from the same publication.)  Go read this excellent post about why interlibrary loan can’t fill in our access problems long term.

Likewise, not all libraries fully engage their users when it comes to making difficult decisions about cuts to subscriptions. And by “fully engage” I don’t mean sending an email to a faculty listserv with a giant excel file attached.  I have tried hard to work closely with “my” faculty when we’ve had to make cuts, despite their cringes whenever I ask for a meeting.  Faculty need to know how much the college pays for resources they use.  They need to know how much that cost is increasing this year, and they need to participate fully in the decision making process to bring our increased expenses in line with our flat (or decreasing) budgets.  I may not be the most popular person in the room, but I want the faculty to say “lets cut this journal so we can keep this other one” instead of shouldering the burden myself.

Along the same lines, we need to do a better job of showing faculty the things we do to preserve their access to information sources.  Things like cutting the number of student worker positions, cutting the travel and professional development budgets and forgoing (sometimes badly needed) renovations.

As a result of this lack-of-transparency, most faculty don’t see the real need to explore alternatives to the big for profit (and nonprofit-that-acts-like-for-profit) publishers – green and gold open access, alternative publishing models, etc.  It’s partly our fault.  Sorry about that.

So what’s next? Librarians need to start talking, and we need to start being specific.  Yes, we often can’t disclose how much we pay for databases outside of our institution (shame on us for signing such agreements, btw), but we are free to share this information internally and we need to do this more often.

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From → communication

5 Comments
  1. This is definitely something librarians need to get better at. I’m making an effort this year.
    I’m up front with the costs of database access. I tell my students that their tuition and fees are what pays for the access we have. If they want to get their money’s worth, they’d better use library resources. I also discuss costs with faculty when doing collections development.

    A few years ago, we had to do a round of database cuts. We had to eliminate certain ongoing subscription databases, but at the same time, we had other money to spend on one-time only purchases. There was a lot of confusion surrounding that distinction.

    There’s also the differing costs of books. Some faculty send me requests to purchase used, paperback copies, thinking that this is a way for them to get more bang for their buck. Then I have to explain our collection development policies and how we buy in hardback, and the cost of repair, rebinding, etc. Sometimes faculty do prices off Amazon or with coupons, which don’t always correlate to what our jobbers charge.
    And then there’s ebooks.

  2. Nick Shockey and I talked a little while ago about developing a browser plugin that would show the researcher the true cost of everything that he accessed “for free”. The problem is actually getting that data. We figured we could start with the article download price since that’s all that’s publicly available, but the other problem would be getting people to install it.

    Haven’t gone much past the original thought, but thought I would put it out there.

  3. I actually like the “free to you” marker (is that Sage?) because typically our customers think *everything* is free; that is, until they try to go home and use it and it’s “broken.”

    It is super important to engage with customers when making cuts, but I try to have more than just the money data at hand when I do so. Other things like the number of usages are good to present.

    • Christina – I completely agree about providing more than just cost when working with faculty on these issues. I try to bring usage data from the past few years, as well as information about availability in other sources. I view these conversations as collaborations between the faculty and the library. They bring subject expertise and gut knowledge of which journals are important and useful, we bring data about what we are actually using, how much it costs and what changes would make the least impact.

  4. Now a days number of companies labeling as free for you, but they are asking money while downloading file. Some companies like open access publishers providing pdfs and full texts free.

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