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Do rising costs equal increased efficiency?

University Business, August 2016

To academic librarians, the serials crisis—the budget squeeze caused by the rising cost of subscriptions to scholarly journals—is old news.

Library spending on serials rose 402 percent between 1986 and 2012, according to the Association of Research Libraries, and costs for individual subscriptions rose by an average of 12 percent over the past two years alone, a Library Journal survey found. 

Because budgets seldom rise at comparable rates, journal costs account for a bigger and bigger share of libraries’ annual spending on acquisitions—an average of 70 percent for the 15 research universities in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, says Kim Armstrong, director of the consortium’s center for library initiatives. That makes it harder for libraries to buy books and other materials. 

And with access costs so high—for a layperson with no university affiliation, downloading a single scholarly article can cost $30 or $40—“the vast majority of humanity is priced out of getting access, particularly in non-wealthy countries,” says Nick Shockey, director of programs and engagement for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which promotes open access.

Academic publishing exists in a peculiar economic universe, librarians say. Faculty write, peer-review and edit much of the content in scholarly journals, underwritten by their universities, or by taxpayers’ money. Then university libraries buy the work back. 

And each journal contains unique content, giving publishers extra leverage. “If you want to buy Cell, you have to buy Cell,” says David Lewis, dean of the university library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “You can’t buy something that looks like Cell.”

Compounding librarians’ frustration is the increasing consolidation of the journal market in the hands of a few companies.

In 2013, Elsevier’s 2,500 journals accounted for nearly one quarter of the articles published in all of the natural and medical sciences, according to a 2015 article in PLOS ONE, a journal created by the nonprofit open access publishing and advocacy organization PLOS.

Many of the largest publishers are commercial operations whose recent profit margins ranged between 28 and 39 percent, the article said. Librarians characterize those numbers using adjectives such as “obscene” and “indefensible.” 

But Elsevier insists its subscription charges fairly reflect the work it takes to coordinate peer review, upgrade technology and perform dozens of other behind-the-scenes tasks. 

“Our driver is to help researchers get to the answers that they need more quickly,” says Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of access and policy. “It’s not simply to provide content. It’s to get tools into their hands to make all of their research process more effective and efficient.”

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