Changed relations

Bora wrote recently about various aspects of power and how “online” has changed the balance of power in different ways. I want to talk about how the advent of e-journals has changed the power of publishers and other players in the journal market.
There has for some time been a trend towards fewer personal subscriptions to scientific journals. Writing in 2001 Carol Tenopir said the average number of personal subscriptions per scientist has roughly halved over 20 years, This has probably been accelerated by electronic journals. If your institution provides desktop electronic access to your favourite journals then you have less incentive to retain a personal subscription. Even the weeklies like Nature and _Science and popular titles like Cell were affected by this trend. Each of those publishers thought long and hard about how to introduce a site licence scheme that provided stable levels of total subscription income. When they first introduced their new business models I think it came as a shock to most libraries; we had to pay a premium rate to make up for all those lost personal subscriptions. Publishers realised then that they needed to improve relations with librarians, who were now becoming their principal customers. They developed new websites and information packs aimed at us, enlarged their sales teams and many also established library advisory committees to gather feedback.
I’ve had the honour of attending some NPG Library Committee meetings, and found them very interesting – a chance to learn both about NPG and about other librarians’ experiences. Of course we can’t expect publishers simply to listen to our views and immediately act on them, but they do take note of what we say and they also explain their thinking to us, to help us appreciate their side. I didn’t attend this year’s meeting, which took place a couple of weeks ago, but I understand that the economic situation figured in the discussions.
A propos of that, librarian Cristina Pikas has drawn attention on her blog to a statement from ICOLC about the economic crisis. ICOLC is the International Coalition of Library Consortia – a kind of meta-consortium. Their statement seeks to persuade publishers to be gentle with us when it comes to setting prices for 2010. Cristina highlighted one statement we can do without costly new interfaces and features. Now is not the time for new products. That does make sense to me, though work on improving standards compliance is an important exception.
So, ejournals have enhanced the relationship between libraries and publishers, and perhaps lessened the relationship with direct subscribers. Ejournals have also shaken up the journal supply chain. Traditionally libraries have used a serials agent, like a specialised bookseller, to buy journals. That means we just deal with the agent and they handle the payments to all the different publishers. But as ejournal deals have become ever more complex, so we have had to increase our direct negotiations with publishers. I think most librarians still value the role of agents, but publishers push us more and more to deal direct. One large publisher recently informed me that my request, to switch from print+electronic to electronic-only subscriptions, must be given to them directly as they did not accept such instructions from agents. It didn’t help on that occasion that the publisher and agent used quite different terminology for what I had thought was a simple instruction. Anyway, I had to go and lie down for a bit to lower my blood pressure after that particular exchange!
All this increased dialogue between librarians and publishers makes life interesting. I have no doubt that online will keep on changing the balance of power between different players in scholarly communication.

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 move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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