Giving them what they want

As a service manager, my first impulse is always to give people what they want. My primary objective is to keep the customer happy (yes, I’m afraid even in Libraries these days we have started to call our users ¬≠customers). To keep information-hungry researchers happy is simple: just provide access to everything, everywhere. The only snag is that I also have to stay within a budget, so I have to make choices about what access to purchase. Most of my budget is spent purchasing journals, so journal selection is always a major concern. I try to keep to a steady state, maintaining the same range of journals with only small tweaks (individual additions and deletions), but there are periodic hiccups (cancellations at times of budget crisis).
I was interested to see in a recent report that “Publishing companies, especially the large and commercial ones, are launching journals at a higher rate than in 2005”. New journals are the best way for a publisher to attract new subscriptions, so it’s not surprising that new launches are increasing. The report, from the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), also found that publishers are closing more titles.
Requests from library users for new journals are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s very useful to know what people want to read. On the other hand, I can’t satisfy all requests as the budget will not stretch that far. How do I decide when a subscription is justified? I look at the brand (Nature Publishing and Cell Press titles usually go to the top of the list), and at the topic of the journal (not interested in Nature Geoscience here but translational medicine is a hot topic). If the journal is not completely new then I do some data analysis (counting up how many times NIMR authors have published in it, cited it, asked the Library for articles from it). Finally I look at who is asking for it (a lone postdoc voice or a group of PIs?).

When Science STKE changed to Science Signalling and started to publish primary research articles, then I got messages from three heads of division plus another two PIs telling me they must have access, and I knew that I must add the title to our deal with the publishers, AAAS.
When another senior scientist forwarded an email from the editor of two journals he was connected with, I took less notice. The email begged him to recommend his librarian to start subscriptions to the two titles, but he later sheepishly admitted “I am not quite sure why I agreed to be on the editorial board – but so far this is the first thing they have asked me to do”. My analysis showed there had been no previous interest in the titles and I decided to do nothing further.
A couple of lone voices asked for two other titles. Both were in core subject areas for NIMR, but had not been heavily requested or cited by NIMR authors. I put them in the category of “nice to have, not essential”, so the result is no action. One of the titles may be part of a “big deal” later on, which is the other complicating factor in choosing whether to subscribe.

Occasionally I will take the initiative myself. When the Company of Biologists (CoB) announced their new journal Disease Models & Mechanisms I knew the topic was one we had to be interested in. Translational research is being pushed by the government and all biomedical research funders so this title, aiming to publish “across the entire spectrum of disease research, including basic, translational, and clinical research” looks unmissable. The range of topics in the first two issues seemed a good match for NIMR interests and CoB have a good track record in producing high-quality journals. (As an aside, I see fellow blogger Heather has just published there). After a bit of consultation I agreed to try a subscription for a year or two. However, just like buses, two translational journals have come along at the same time.

We also have EMBO Molecular Medicine due to start in 2009, with a very similar set of aims and impressive-looking editorial board. The good news is that they are offering free access to all content for the first two years of publication, so I can delay making the decision to part with any money just yet.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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3 Responses to Giving them what they want

  1. Henry Gee says:

    Frank – thanks for this very insightful post into the working life of a customer of people like me science librarian. What impact do you think the global ecobnomic downturn will have on journals, libraries and budgets?

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Henry – The most immediate effect comes from the exchange rate. Any journals priced in dollars or Euros are suddenly more expensive. Presumably it works to the advantage of those in USA or the Euro-zone who buy journals priced in sterling.
    In some sectors when budgets are tight libraries are seen as a relatively painless way to make cuts.

  3. Chris Surridge says:

    Frank,
    Journal launches aren’t going away, they are an endemic activity of publishers. The landscape of research is constantly changing with new fields and techniques opening up gaps that publishers are keen to cater for with new journals. I wondered whether you were happy with this process in general.
    There is an argument that lots of specialist journals give librarians the power to carefully select that segment of the published literature that is most appropriate for the needs of their institution. But the downside is that you may be buying many individual papers that no-one will ever read.
    Would you prefer to see business models develop where you buy only those articles you actually use. That is at least theoretically possible though no publisher I know is really set up for it yet (and the economics of the web don’t make micropayments … well economical).
    How would you feel about a business model in which you budget was used more to cover the costs of dissemination of work from your own institute, and your use of papers was funded by the institutions of the authors of the research?
    Either of those paper-based models could potentially give you all the papers that any of your customers wanted and stop you having to decide which journals not to take.
    Do you feel like you are in the best of all possible worlds?