November 20, 2017

Scientific American Price Change Defended; Oberlin Group Not Convinced

By Norman Oder

Library directors say they’re disappointed, will let market respond

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  • Price of print subscriptions had been static for years
  • Scientific American beefs up board of advisors
  • NPG says it will improve communication with libraries

Nature Publishing Group (NPG), the publisher of Scientific American, is not backing down in response to complaints about the timing and extent of new subscription pricing, which treats the well-respected consumer publication—which experienced no price change for years—like an STM publication.

Library directors who complained say they’re disappointed and, rather than complain further, will let the market work.

More than 50 library directors of liberal arts college libraries and members of the Oberlin Group protested the 2010 increase from $39.95 to $299 in print and from $1000 to $1500 (depending on the size of the college) for an annual online license.

The publisher had previously noted that “[p]ricing for institutional print subscriptions had been static for years, and did not reflect the size of institution.”

NPG response
In a cordial letter (reproduced below) to Oberlin Group spokesman Jonathan Miller, director of the Olin Library at Rollins College, Winter Park, FL, NPG managing director Steven Inchcoombe wrote, “I accept your point that Scientific American is not a core scholarly journal, at least as far as specialist audiences are concerned,” but noted that the Chronicle of Higher Education said it was “probably the nation’s most venerable source of science news written for a general audience.”

He said that NPG plans “to expand the content and scope” of the magazine in 2010.” Indeed, just today NPG announced it was beefing up its current six-member advisory board by adding “35 distinguished scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs,” an effort that the publisher says “underlines Scientific American’s commitment to accurately and accessibly reporting insights from scientists and key opinion leaders.” Among them: Nobel Laureates David Gross and Steven Weinberg; Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society Lord Martin Rees; and cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig.

Inchcoombe apologized if institutional subscribers did not have time to evaluate the price increase, saying “we will… improve our library communications,” but asserted that the price increase did not represent “short-term commercial interests."

He added that the ownership of the magazine had not changed, just its management structure.

Response from libraries
Miller told LJ, “The general tenor of the responses received so far is that we are disappointed in such an unimaginative response to the very real changes taking place in the magazine industry. There is no reason to respond collectively to this letter since it largely restates Nature’s previously stated position. Instead we will let the market work, as libraries continue to cancel subscriptions and seek to fill their users need for science journalism from other sources.”

Could smaller increases have worked?
One commenter on LJ’s previous article suggested that “the publisher makes a good point regarding the static price of the magazine for many years,” and Miller acknowledged that libraries might have accepted some smaller but steady increases over the years. 

“But frankly, we are looking at our print subscriptions very closely these days and comparing (rising) cost to (falling) use and canceling quite aggressively,” he said, reflecting on his library’s situation. “Our users have moved online, our print journal and magazine collections are being used less and less. We are looking for ways to move access to that content online. Nature’s insistence on an exorbitant price for online access and equating a good magazine with STM journals were the straws that broke the camel’s back, for Rollins at least.”

“In a year when the CPI [Consumer Price Index] dropped by 1.3%, tuition increases in higher education are being challenged, and the Olin Library (as one of the relatively lucky libraries in higher education. these days) is looking a potential 0% budget increase in FY11, I simply cannot countenance an increase of more than 700% on one title.” 

Contact the author: noder@reedbusiness.com


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