Take the money and run

With library funds decreasing, for-profit publishers want your science research money.

To those in the know, this isn’t big news. Publishers have been hinting about it for some time.

Keys and money
For-profit (and some non-profit) publishers want more money, while keeping their content locked down and controlled. CC image courtesy of Flickr user Images_of_Money.

But a recent analysis report (PDF) has been making the rounds of the twitter-verse today, making a few things more explicit. Reed Elsevier: Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? is an investment analysis from Claudio Aspesi and others at Bernstein Research:

Most important, at a time when budgets of academic libraries look likely to be constrained for years to come in many countries, Elsevier’s growth will increasingly depend on its ability to secure funding earmarked for general science research, instead of library funding.

This fascinating report, lays out the challenges facing Elsevier in an age of boycotts, open access, and increasing researcher awareness of the costs of scholarly publishing.

The report also focuses on Elsevier’s culture of control of their content. From limits on open access, licensing restrictions and text mining restrictions Elsevier wants to control who does what with their content. They want to take an ever increasing share of library budgets, then the research grant money, and they want to control what you do with the information you license from them. The investment analysts state:

We continue to be baffled by Elsevier’s perception that controlling everything (for example by severely restricting text- and data mining applications) is essential to protect its economics.

Recently, it seems like every year I talk to faculty in my departments and say “We have to make some tough choices due to flat budgets and increasing journal costs. What would you like to cancel?” Every time librarians do this, faculty become a bit more aware of the economics of scholarly publishing.

Elsevier isn’t the only publisher facing these challenges, and they might not even be the baddest apple in the group, but they are very big (my library pays more for their content than anyone else’s), and their actions are drawing the attention of the scholarly community.

It will be interesting to see how this develops. Stay tuned!

Publishers, Hyperbole, and the “Don’t subscribe” pricing model

Commercial publishing is no stranger to hyperbole. “Essential research for your institution.” “Best information resource available.” “Exclusive time-limited offer.”

But I recently came across an interesting case of publisher hype. Multi Science Publishing, publisher of many mid-range scientific journals, recently sent an email to an email discussion group, touting its new pricing model, “Pay only for Usage.” Their tag line is “Don’t subscribe.”

The email claimed that announcements of the new model had caused “quite a stir” and the author of the email, a W Hughs, the “director” of Multi-Science Publishing, suggested that he hadn’t seen “anything like” the scale of libraries response to the new plan.

That stuck me as quite interesting, because a search for information about this new plan yields little information about the plan.  The most prominent resources are a link to the email discussion group archives and a single blog post, both dated March 27.  I can’t seem to fins information about the package on the publishers website.  The only stir on twitter I can find are tweets from @billhughes6 directed towards libraries:

In short, I’m not convinced that this announcement has caused a stir at all.

And so you may ask, is the new model deserving of the hype?

The pricing model they’ve declared revolutionary is simple: libraries sign up for access and pay $5.00 for each article their users download. For folks in the Sciences, the $5.00 per article price point is less many publishers charge, and it’s even less than the interlibrary loan fees that libraries might have to pay.

It isn’t a bad deal. The big part seems to be the unmediated bit – users get direct access to the article, without having to request that the library buy it for them (although some new methods of making these requests have reduced the time needed to get the article to you, you still have to ask.)

So, how does this compare to other journal packages out there? That’s a difficult question to ask, because libraries don’t pay per article. In same cases, we can easily pay $1, $10 or $40 an article, depending on the journal, publisher and package.

Libraries may also be reluctant to sign up for a plan that will make it difficult for them to budget their expenses.

I like to see some experimentation in journal pricing models, because the status quo isn’t really helping anyone (except company shareholders).

I’d be less cynical about the plan if the publisher had simply promoted the plan, without informing us of how much “stir” and “excitement” it had already caused – earn the buzz for your new service, don’t just say it exists.

Open access challenges for small scholarly societies

I am very much in favor of open access.  I believe it is the natural extension of the scientific enterprise.  Scientists no longer record their results in code, or disseminate them via cryptic anagrams.  Instead, the work of scientists is shared with others so that they may, in turn, make new discoveries.

Creative Commons image courtesy of PLoS, available via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, this is idealistic, but I’m okay with that.

As a result, I have no hesitations in pushing the big for-profit publishers towards greater rights for authors and more open access options, and I applaud the effort behind the Cost of Knowledge  boycott of Elsevier.  And just being a not-for-profit scholarly society will not make me sympathetic to high subscription costs, aggressive price increases and restrictive copyright practices (like the American Chemical Society).

But for smaller scholarly societies, I can see how the open access movement has caused a lot of soul searching and a wide variety of opinions and options.

For small scholarly societies, subscriptions to their scholarly publications can make up a large portion of their operating budgets.  Moving to an open access model may mean the loss of some of this revenue, and society members may question whether an author-pays model of open access publication will be able to offset the cost of publication.  On the other hand, many societies may see a greater fulfillment of their mission by expanding open access options.

Happily, I am seeing more small scholarly societies embrace various aspects of “openness” in their publications.  The Ecological Society of America demonstrates some interesting examples of branching out and offering more open access options.

First, they recently started a new open access journal, Ecosphere.  The new journal conforms to what we tend to expect from “gold” open access publishers: online only, author fees for accepted manuscripts, and authors retain copyright of their articles.  The recent ESA annual report  suggests that they have been pleasantly surprised but the success of the new journal.

Second, although ESA requires transfer of copyright to the society for their other publications, they do grant the right to post a copy of the article on the authors personal homepage or institutions website.  This is “green” open access, an option that more researchers need to take advantage of.

Finally, their journal Ecology provides and interesting example of a hybrid publication.  Ecology is available via subscription and publishes a wide variety of article formats, including brief reports that are “expected to disclose new and exciting work in a concise format.”  Several reports are published in each issue, and all are open access.  As a result, a certain portion of each issue is freely available.

As scholarly societies and other publishing entities come to terms with new expectations for scholarly publishing, I expect that more societies will experiment with a variety of open access options.  A three year old report from SAGE suggests that this will happen. I’m looking forward to seeing what folks come up with.

What determines the value of academic publications?

And can librarians, scholars and publishers agree about it?

Image courtesy of flickr user 401K, 401kcalculator.org

By value, I don’t just mean the impact factor and other metrics, or even the general prestige of a journal as measured by gut feeling. I mean the value of a publication (a single article, an entire journal, every journal a publisher publishes) in fiscal terms. Dollars and cents. Moolah. Benjamins.

Perhaps we can say that a more highly ranked journal (impact factor, eigenfactor, etc.) might be worth more in dollars. Some publishers would certainly like this to be true. Higher quality equals higher cost. After all, you want the $100 bottle of wine to taste better than the $5 bottle of wine. But this doesn’t seem to be how it works in reality, at least in some disciplines. Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006) did a study of ecology journals, and examined cost versus impact factor.  In general, they found that there was no correlation between the two.  [Yes, yes, I know. Impact factor is just one poor way of measuring value.]

Perhaps value has something to do with reliability? One way to look at reliability is to examine retractions. Fang and Casadevall (2011) have shown that typically, high impact journals have more per-article retractions because they are at the cutting edge of research (also see this Retraction Watch post). Because they want to get things out fast, mistakes are sometimes made. Nature, Cell and Science all have a relatively high Retraction Index (see Fang and Casadevall, 2011). But does this make these journals any less valuable overall?

With the number of open access options increases, publishers (especially for profit publishers and academic societies that act like for profit publishers) make the argument that their editing, copy editing and page preparation services add significant value to their publications.  How much should should these services add to the total value of the publication?  [Hint: not as much as the publisher would like.]

Then again, perhaps the value of a publication has less to do with the content and more to do with the audience. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine is probably more useful and valuable to a medical school than it is to my small liberal arts college, and more valuable to me than to a similarly sized school without a biology program.

When publishers assign a value to their publications, they typically take into account the size of the school or the types of degrees they award. Larger schools often pay more money for access to the same resources. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always take into account the details of who those folks are. Two schools with 5000 students will pay the same amount for a resource in chemistry, say, even though one school has 100 chemistry majors each year and the other has 10.

As journal costs keep rising, institutions must continuously evaluate value – does this journal provide enough value to my institution to justify the costs?

No matter how good the $100 bottle of wine is, I’ll need to keep drinking the $5 stuff. Or maybe the $10 stuff for Christmas.


Bergstrom, C. T., & Bergstrom, T. (2006). The economics of ecology journals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4(9), 488–495. Retrieved from http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/1540-9295(2006)4[488:TEOEJ]2.0.CO;2

Fang, F. C., & Casadevall, A. (2011). Retracted science and the retraction index. Infection and immunity, 79(10), 3855-9. doi:10.1128/IAI.05661-11