RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

  SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS  -  The librarian blues

Librarians at science libraries are worried. Caught between the expanding volume of publications coupled with ever-rising subscription costs, on the one hand, and shrinking budgets on the other, they are sounding the alarm. At the same time, they are watching with interest the promises of open access and the revolution it could bring to the dissemination of knowledge.

The librarian blues
Every year, 16 000 scientific journals publish about 1.2 million articles. Yet this major market which generates revenue of over €20 billion worldwide is in many ways very untypical. Financed out of the predominantly public research budgets of academic and scientific institutions, the ‘raw material’ they deal in is largely free of cost. This is because authors generally receive no fee for their contributions, a practice known as author-free publication. The end-users, that is the individual scientists, also read these journals free of charge as it is the libraries of the institutions that employ them which take out the subscriptions, an expenditure item that is also financed out of research budgets.

Inflexible demand and a captive market
In this context of free supply and free acquisition – but ultimately financed in both cases out of the sums which society decides to allocate to research – it is the producers, that is the publishers, and especially the most powerful among them, that constitute the intermediary that manages the chain. Responsible for peer review, they render a vital service in terms of quality control and the reference value of the scientific data. They also do the specialist’s job of disseminating scientific knowledge to interested target groups and responding to changing knowledge needs. 

But, apart from the fact that publishers make money from material they receive free of charge, they also enjoy what is in a sense a ‘captive’ market based on inflexible demand. “In fulfilling our mission in regard to the researchers at our institutions, we have no alternative but to subscribe to a number of essential publications in a very wide variety of disciplines(1)” stress many university libraries. “It is also a closed and rather selective market in which the process of recognition is long and difficult, and that does not encourage the emergence of new publishers.” 

Unanimous until about 30 years ago, the consensus regarding the way this market operates is now being questioned. It is the libraries that are complaining. In addition to being overwhelmed by the growing number of journals published – the average number of subscriptions taken out by public libraries in the United Kingdom has risen from 4 000 to 6 000 – they are also grappling with subscription costs rising at an estimated 10% a year. 

In a general climate of stagnant or even shrinking public expenditure on research, this increase in costs is coming at a time of severe cutbacks in library budgets, one estimated at 30% in the United Kingdom. “It is a vicious circle,” say some economists. “Prices are impeding a demand that has reduced resources. The market is not subject to real conditions of competition. This pressure in terms of outlets for publishers – the largest of which form quite a closed club responsible for managing an ever-growing volume of knowledge – has an effect that is partly reflected in the price rises. Ultimately, it is science itself that is suffering as a result of the tensions in this sector.”

Big deals
Today, the term ‘subscription’ refers to printed journals and to the on-line edition that the vast majority of publishers have already started to produce. Digital access incurs transfer, software installation and updating, maintenance and archiving costs. In the absence of established standards, the rates charged for access are usually about the same as for printed versions.

"In response to the difficulties faced by libraries, publishers have introduced what is now the widespread practice of discount subscription to a range of tiles or title ‘bundles’ (also known as ‘big deals’),” explain Bob Campbell and René Olivieri at the UK’s Blackwell Publishing. “This also enables us to fulfil our role in coping with the growing production of articles, a volume that has doubled over the past few years. The cost of bundle subscriptions for printed and/or on-line journals has not increased at the same rate and it is true to say that, in reality, average costs per journal are falling.” 

Obliged to accept these ‘deals’ for reasons of economy, some libraries now complain that they are losing their freedom of choice. This is because bundling does not necessarily provide the best selection of titles to meet the specific needs of researchers at a given institution. They are also absorbing a larger share of their purchasing budgets, forcing them to cancel other subscriptions. This penalises those smaller publishers which, although they may be important in their field, cannot compete with these big deals.

Publishers called into question
Academic publishers stress that their profits – very sizeable in some cases – are not distributed to shareholders but reinvested in the research system. Private publishers also make the point that they try to provide comprehensive coverage of scientific needs by striking a balance between money-making and money-losing journals. They also stress that they are investing in the growing dissemination of knowledge via the internet where a number of non-profit-making publications can be found with a low circulation that academic publishers have difficulty in producing and managing without incurring losses. 

Nevertheless, the question of the subscription prices and profit margins usually practised by publishers is being called into question by the scientific community and also increasingly by those who allocate public funds to research. While nobody doubts their usefulness, questions are being raised about their business strategy and continually rising prices, especially for on-line access. On the latter point, the scientific publishing world is now facing competition from free and open access which is receiving growing support among members of the researcher community (see Campaign for free access).

(1) While the importance of a publication is first and foremost measured in terms of the number of subscriptions, its renown is also based on a less material criterion of success, namely the number of times a journal is cited in all the articles published in its field.

  An issue of concern to ERA  
  Knowledge management is a prerogative of the scientific community and an external authority that tried to intrude on this autonomy would not be welcomed. Under the Science and Society programme, in 1994 the European Union initiated a study on Scientific publication markets in Europe. It was carried out by researchers at the European Centre for Advanced Research in Economics & Statistics (ECARES) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, with assistance from Toulouse University which is carrying out a pilot econometric study at national level. 

"The publications not only provide a dissemination of knowledge but also constitute a barometer of excellence,” declared former European Commissioner Philippe Busquin on the subject of this initiative. “Our concern is to increase the visibility and the quality of the scientific contributions of the European Research Area (ERA). That means we must show an interest the publishing system.” 

The results of this study, which should be available within the next few months, will enable the European Commission – which not only funds research but is also responsible for developing the ERA – to recommend initiatives in what is a vital area for science.


  VAT rates differ  
  One factor that penalises on-line access comes from the distortion introduced by value-added tax. Generally, due to their intellectual mission, a minimum VAT rate is imposed on printed journals, while on-line journals, which come into the category of electronic services, are taxed at the maximum rate. Publishers and libraries alike are calling for this anomaly to be corrected. The decision is a political one that must be made at European level.