Time for a subscription review

As summer draws to a close and the new autumn season looms, it’s that time when librarians start to think about subscriptions for the next calendar year. (Actually we now think about them all year round – I just had a licence from one publisher to sign for our 2009 subscriptions and we started thinking about another publisher’s 2010 subscriptions back in April).
In a good year we can just renew everything without any worries, perhaps trimming or adding at the edges. In a bad year we have to try to make more major changes and often that means some kind of major review.
This year for the first time I have tried using usage statistics as the principal means of identifying titles to go on the hit list. This is not perfect – minority subjects may get unfairly targeted and groups where there has been some staffing hiatus will also show low usage. So I also ask all PIs for comments on the proposed list. Here is the message (slightly amended) that I have just sent out. It’ll be interesting to see what response I get.

Journal subscriptions account for about 90% of this library’s consumables budget. In the last few years the annual price increases have been less steep (about 7% p.a.) than previously but the recent weakness of the the Pound is going to cause problems for 2010 as many publishers quote their prices in US dollars or in Euros.
We are proposing to make changes to our subscriptions for 2010, saving about £15k in total and helping us to continue to pay for the remaining journal subscriptions and packages.
Low usage
We have been looking at usage figures for all our subscribed titles and comparing them with the cost of the journals, and have arrived at a list of journals that appear to be providing poor value for money. Twelve titles are suggested for cancellation.
Reducing print
We have already reduced the number of print journal subscriptions substantially in favour of online-only access, and we will go further down that route in 2010. We will keep print subscriptions only for the weeklies with news content and for general titles. Some titles that do not allow an online-only subscription may also have to be retained in print for now. We plan to keep just ten print titles.
Note that due to the way that UK VAT works, switching from print to online only does not usually save money
What is a subscription?
Journal business models have changed hugely over the last 15 years. Many of the online journals that are listed in our catalogue and e-journals list are free, partly free or come as part of a package deal where we pay a single price for a large collection of titles from one publisher. These package deals give us access to a large range of titles including some of high interest, some of low interest and some of no interest at all. Overall they are good value but they do make it harder to say what the cost of an individual title is. Publishers offering package deals also insist on no-cancellation clauses, so reducing our options to cancel titles.
Open access
Open Access is slowly having an effect on access to journals. Full open access titles such as PLoS Biology require no subscription. Titles with open backfiles (usually after 12 months) are useful but we still need subscriptions for current material. The growing number of articles archived in PubMedCentral and elsewhere are also useful but many of these are delayed by 6 or 12 months, so we still need subscriptions to key titles. At present Open Access gives fringe benefits but is not a complete replacement for subscription-based access.

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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14 Responses to Time for a subscription review

  1. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Interesting post Frank. I’m wondering often a library cancels its subscription to a journal and what other means are provided for individuals to access manuscripts that the school does not carry?
    Here at the Univ of Illinois, if our library system does not carry the printed or online-version of a journal a request can be sent to the librarian who will get a copy of the article wanted from a larger community of Universities in the Midwest and send you the pdf. Is this typical?

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Elizabeth – what we call inter-library loan (ILL) is a common service that libraries provide. We can never hope to hold every journal so offering a service to obtain articles from other journals is essential. In UK the British Library provide an excellent service, and many other specialist libraries also offer ILL services, There are also local schemes.
    The drawback of ILL is that many online journal licences do not permit libraries to distribute PDFs outside the instiution, so we can usually only get printed copies of articles.
    I do expect the open access repositories to provide a useful alternative to ILL.

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    Ahhh, in my younger days, when I had more time and freedom to browse a wider variety of articles, I enjoyed plonking myself down in the current issues section of the library and gorge myself on whatever obscurities I could lay my hands on.
    I miss that, but I also appreciate the considerable ease of finding individual articles online, in seconds, from my desktop, which has become more important as my career has developed. Storing pdf’s on a hard drive is a definite boon, and printing them is much easier than photocopying them from hard bound past issues.
    The only request I’d have for my current library is to ensure the don’t allow current subscriptions to popular journals to lapse. Every year, our American Naturalist online access goes up in smoke for a couple of months for some reason. The printed journal is usually at least a month behind the current TOC in my inbox.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Mike – don’t we have even more scope for gorging on obscurity now though? Plunge into Google or Tictocs. On a related topic there was an interesting discussion recently about whether the digital age has robbed us of serendipity in our information-seeking.
    The unintended subscription lapse is actually a good measure of whether anyone is still reading the journal. With some journals we know we will hear from a frustrated user within about 20 mins if the server goes down or our access is blocked. For other journals, it could be 3 months. I should stress that we haven’t ever intentionally engineered such a stoppage!
    The subscription-lapse stoppage is usually caused by miscommunication between subscription agent and publisher and it is often hard to know where the fault lies. I have to say that small society publishers are the worst for this kind of thing.

  5. Mike Fowler says:

    Hmmm, I probably shouldn’t whine about our library here, they generally to a great job. Let’s just say Am Nat ain’t published by a small society (U. Chicago Press) and there were a few pleading e-mails being sent from our department over the course of over a month, reminding them to update subscription. It has happened for the last 3 years (if not more). But really, other than that, I’m happy with our local, friendly, science library.
    There was an interesting article in Science last year about how our reading and citation habits are changing with electronic publication, and the knock on effect for scholarship. Basically, James Evans suggests that we are less likely to promote generality in the conclusions of our work to different fields, as we rapidly access specific articles online, rather than browsing paper journals to find the relevant article, then stumbling across other potentially relevant research on the way.
    I’m a bit unsure about the definition of ‘serendipity’ used in the blog you linked to. Actually, the definition there is fine, but what the blogger describes is something entirely different. I don’t see how reading a story from a headline that catches your eye in a newspaper can be construed as serendipitous if you’re already reading the paper. It’s not really a surprise that a newspaper contains more than a single story.
    I would argue the same about using social media, especially if you go there specifically to be directed to random cites websites. Hardly counts as serendipity if that’s your initial aim…

  6. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Mike, while many scientists may no longer browse paper journals, most do receive the table of contents of journals in their emails. Might this still allow for generality and the chance of stumbling across relevant research?
    I make it a habit to go through each TOC that I receive and read over the contents. Biggest drawback compared to skimming the paper version?…many TOCs only have the titles and authors listed. Those that also provide the abstracts in the emails I think provide an experience very similar to if I was going through the hard copy.

  7. Mike Fowler says:

    Yep, the TOCs face a bit of a trade-off there. I receive mine by e-mail, scan through the titles and click the link to any of interest, but TOCs that contain an abstract as well start to get a bit much for the old inbox.
    The other thing TOCs lack is figures – an enormously helpful way to get a message across rapidly in a paper. When scanning a paper copy of the journal, these are the things that often grab attention in an otherwise unnoticed article, not necessarily the abstract.

  8. Frank Norman says:

    Mike – well U Chicago Press may not be that small, but they are certainly difficult to deal with! We have had recurrent problems with a different title that they publish.

  9. Mike Fowler says:

    Oho! Thanks for the info. I take it all back, Helsinki Uni library.

  10. Cath Ennis says:

    Mike, while many scientists may no longer browse paper journals, most do receive the table of contents of journals in their emails.
    Old school! RSS feeds are your friend (and most let you view the abstract within your feed reader). It’s so nice not to have my inbox completely swamped with TOCs when I’m away (or too busy to read them).

  11. Mike Fowler says:

    Cath, what’s the difference between having all those TOCs clogging up your inbox, or your RSS reader? They still don’t show you pretty pictures important figures.
    Some people are said to be born before their time. I always felt like I was born about a century too late.

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    I use my inbox for important work-related and often urgent emails. I use my Google Reader account for blogs. I have the journal feeds in a separate folder within GR, so they don’t get in the way of any useful (or even useless) information. And I do prefer to read the abstract from within GR without having to click a link and launch a browser.

  13. Frank Norman says:

    Cath – good to hear that you like RSS TOCs. I agree it seems neater to keep TOCs out of email but we still find resistance to making the RSS switch. This article confirms it (and give you more information than you probably ever need about RSS TOCs!). It also says that at least some publishers are including images in the RSS feeds.
    The TicTocs service is a good place to find journal feeds.

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve persuaded my boss too, and he’s now gradually moving everything over to RSS