Subscription rage

Supermarkets are confusing places these days. There are two-for-one offers (BOGOF – buy one get one free) and variations thereon (buy two get one half price, etc etc), combo offers (buy three similar products together for a cheaper price than buying them separately) and all kinds of ways of persuading you to spend more than you had planned to. You need your wits about you and must read a good deal of small print on price labels to be sure you are getting the best deal. Last week I wanted a punnet of strawberries. They were labelled as costing £4, which struck me as a bit steep. Then I noticed that the label also said “2 for £3”. I scratched my head and double-checked the price label, then scratched my head again. Eventually I asked a nearby man in a supermarket uniform how much the strawberries cost and he confirmed that if I purchased two punnets of strawberries then the total cost would be £3. He looked at me as though I was a bit stupid for doubting that was the case, but it was an offer that did not make economic sense to me.

Value and price no longer seem to have a direct relationship.

That is the case too when it comes to buying journal access, or subscriptions as we used to call them. They often come packaged together in bundles and with a variety of special deals. A process of negotiation is required to decide exactly how many journals the publisher will let us have for what amount of money. We have to look in detail at usage of each title and the cost of providing that title. The Big Deal (a large bundle of journals from a single publisher) is coming under pressure recently. Research Libraries UK have told publishers that the Big Deals that libraries entered into in the past are no longer sustainable.

Some publishers use a different tack. They put high list prices on their journals but after negotiation they will offer discounts to persuade you to subscribe. That is fine but then somewhere down the line, in a year or three, they will try to bump you back up to the list price. This is what Nature Publishing Group did to the University of California last year – they just reduced the level of discount.

Publishers no longer have to put up their prices they can just change the terms of the deal instead, or make the special offer less “special”.

Last week I had another moment rather like the strawberries incident, but in reverse. I received notification of an initial offer for 2012 from a certain publisher (I will not mention them by name but they are a powerful US learned society publisher, not well-loved by open access advocates). This was an offer that did not make economic sense to me.

We have had a deal with them for about six years, with a gradual increase in price and decrease in flexibility. They changed their model a couple of years back, to bind my group of libraries into a very tight agreement but we kept with it. For 2012 they have decided that we no longer qualify for this deal. It is teh same one that UK Universities get and the publisher wants instead to put us onto their “Government libraries” deal. By pure chance the Government libraries deal seems to be much more expensive than the University libraries deal – an increase of 130%. The question of whether we are academic or government is a thorny one
that I have written about before and it is perhaps hard to answer with certainty. But the question of whether we can afford a 130% price increase at a time of public spending cuts and global recession is quite an easy one, and I would have thought that the answer was pretty obvious to most observers of the publishing scene. I fear that our researchers‘ ACcesS to that publisher‘s journals is going to be somewhat reduced for next year.

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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13 Responses to Subscription rage

  1. Stephen says:

    I saw what you did there… 😉

  2. Frank says:

    Sssshhh!

  3. rpg says:

    American Commercial Studies are wankers. Fact.

  4. Of course, the “Big Deals” get even more interesting when an organization that accredits undergraduate programs requires you to subscribe to some of their products. 🙂

  5. Austin says:

    And there was I thinking you might be about to mention an ASBo MoB

  6. cromercrox says:

    If I said anything at all about this I’d have to kill you myself.

  7. Frank says:

    Bonnie – indeed! There is something incestuous about that entanglement.

    Austin – The ASBo MoB seem quite innocuous in comparison. This other lot are a much more threatening kind of mob.

  8. Frank says:

    And in today’s news, another big publisher is offering us the chance to pay 8% extra for our journals in 2012. It’s not a price increase, but because our existing discount is too big they are gradually reducing it each year, aiming to slowly bring us in line. It’s not a grand result for scientific discovery.

  9. Frank says:

    I take it all back! I’ve just had an email from our negotiation agent to say:

    In the face of such passionate criticism from you over the move to government pricing rates, the publisher have reviewed their policy and have confirmed that you will be treated as Academic libraries in future.

    The “you” referred to is myself and four other research institute librarians who responded.

    I feel a bit bad now for all those nasty things I had been thinking.

  10. rpg says:

    Why feel bad? It obviously worked.

  11. Congrats!

    Now that the one and only time I’ve ever seen the word “rage” anywhere near your blog has been so successful, will there be more rage and flame warz in future?

  12. Frank says:

    Flame warz? Hopefully not. Measured rage will appear from time to time, but usually I save it for emails to suppliers, when I am paying fir a service but not getting adequate service.

    Never fear, I do not plan on turning into King Lear or Dylan Thomas.