June 19, 2018

Digital Savings

A study of academic libraries finds that going from print to electronic journals can save money, if it’s done right, but challenges remain

Without question, the ongoing transition from print to electronic periodicals has challenged librarians to rethink their strategies. While some effects of this change have been immediately apparent—greater breadth of material, easier access, exposure to new sources, publisher package deals, and open access—the broader outcomes on library operations remain unclear. Subscription pricing issues aside, the evidence thus far suggests that the transition to digital resources now underway will save money.

In 2003, with colleagues Donald W. King (Univ. of Pittsburgh) and Ann Okerson (Yale), we set out to learn more about how the transition to electronic periodicals is affecting costs to libraries. (To read the full report, “Library Periodicals Expenses,” visit www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub127/ pub127.pdf.) With the cooperation of 11 academic libraries, we focused specifically on “nonsubscription” costs, everything from staff time and computer workstations to binding and the maintenance of space. Our findings show that, on a per title basis, the nonsubscription costs of e-periodicals are consistently and substantially lower than those of print periodicals.

A number of unexpected factors can complicate the process. First, the number of e-journal titles offered by any given library may increase significantly as compared with print. Second, libraries need to take into account short-term management challenges, such as the speed of the transition. Finally, and of great importance, no acceptable archiving solutions for electronic periodicals currently exist. Managing these challenges will ensure the transition is as smooth and effective as possible.

Nonsubscription costs down

To determine the effects of the life cycle findings on individual libraries, we considered several scenarios. Our ultimate model envisions a complete transition of existing print titles to e-format. In this case, we project eventual cost reductions of from $100,000 to $700,000 annually.

When examined against annual nonsubscription costs, we expect cost reductions ranging between 20% and 60%. Clearly, these cost implications will depend greatly on local conditions, library initiatives, and management practices, but they can be significant. However, cost reductions may not be as dramatic as some estimations. Notably, when measured relative to annual budget size, cost reductions at large schools are smaller than many have anticipated. Still, we believe making the transition from print to e-periodicals will be cost-effective. The findings discussed so far assume a total transition of existing titles and do not take into account new subscriptions. These costs, however, cannot be ignored.

More titles to choose from

At the largest research libraries in the United States and Canada, data from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) indicate that the average number of serials received per library increased by more than 20% between 1997 and 2003, and all indications from our own study suggest that the rate of growth at smaller academic libraries may be significantly higher. Obviously, electronic publishing has had an impact. Although often criticized by librarians, publishers’ bundled packages present a pricing model taken up at remarkable rates by academic institutions. These packages have enabled libraries to make available many more journals in electronic format than has ever been possible in print and allowed colleges and universities to add many new titles to their collections.

Despite the apparent success of this approach, it is too soon to know whether these bundles will become the generally accepted means of accessing journal literature. Bundling has faced stiff resistance from some librarians, and the recent economic climate has increased pushback, especially among the largest libraries. Consequently, the extent of their market penetration cannot be known. One thing, however, is certain: if the number of periodical titles increases at a given library, the associated nonsubscription expenditures will at least partially offset the lower per title costs and may even “eat up” the cost reductions of the new format.

Two factors indicate that cost reductions are likely to remain. First, grouping titles is more cost-efficient than licensing titles individually. For example, collection development, cataloging, and licensing and negotiations often take place for a bundle of titles no matter its size, so costs are likely to be below average for titles in larger packages when measured on a per title basis. Second, institutions with the most to save on a per title basis—small and medium libraries—are most dramatically increasing the size of their periodicals collections as a result of these packages. Larger libraries are unlikely to grow as dramatically in size.

Whatever the effect on costs, readers increasingly expect access to more and more electronic journals. It is important to consider the hidden costs as well as the hidden savings when some package deal makes it possible for a library to expand its periodicals collection dramatically.

Short-term effects

The findings presented above assume a total transition from print to electronic format, although it will likely be some time before this transition is complete. Even the libraries in our study that have effectively finished the transition continue to subscribe to some number of print titles, and thus nonsubscription costs remain. So, during a gradual transition, print subscriptions would decline but not be eliminated. Because this is the exact position many academic libraries are now in, our study also considered these implications.

As print titles are cancelled and replaced with electronic versions, economies of scale are reduced and per title print costs rise as a result. To demonstrate the complications associated with a partial transition, we modeled a 50% transition from print to electronic format. In that case, the net effect is that cost reductions decline substantially, almost always by half or more, sometimes to zero. There can even be a slight increase.

The cost effects associated with a partial transition from print to e-format warrant careful consideration. If a full transition is eventually to be achieved, the near-term transitional effects may of course be of only short-term importance. But libraries cannot ignore that the transitional period, especially if it is a long one, will result in increased unit costs for print periodicals as the number of print titles is reduced.

Many libraries are already in the midst of a partial transition. But the slow ripping of the bandage is always more painful. From this perspective, a faster transition would be preferable, other things being equal. Colleges and universities contemplating the move should keep in mind this important cost element, because the speed and comprehensiveness of the transition may affect costs dramatically.

We need archiving solutions

Archiving remains the big problem. There is simply no solution in place to ensure the long-term availability of electronic periodicals. Although a workable (if informal) solution for print periodicals has existed for years, the development of a long-term approach must be factored in. The costs associated with long-term storage and preservation of print periodicals appear in our data, but they are altogether absent on the electronic side. Librarians and university administrators must bear in mind whether the cost differentials from the transition will be sufficient to fund a generally acceptable archiving solution and, if not, how that solution might be paid for.

The failure thus far to resolve the issue of archiving hinders the transition to electronic journals. It is unclear whether libraries alone will be able to pay for a long-term archiving solution, but the cost advantages that this study finds may constitute the most likely source of funding for this purpose and present an opportunity for the library community to at least shape the archiving strategies that emerge. If the cost advantages we see can be realized by individual libraries and used to stimulate the implementation of archiving solutions, they would certainly help expedite broader electronic access.

A strategy helps

Clearly, the transition to e-format for periodicals has brought with it numerous advantages. Researchers find an increasing breadth of materials instantly and always available from anywhere, often fully and robustly searchable. Students and scholars are being exposed to sources they might never otherwise have found. And, as our study has shown, academic libraries may experience notable reductions in their nonsubscription expenditures. It seems undeniable that the transition to the electronic format will not only continue but may even accelerate.

This transition will not simply take care of itself. Yet it is rare for a given college or university to develop a plan that carefully details, for example, the speed and comprehensiveness of the transition. But take note: the nonsubscription costs of a gradual transition may, for some institutions in the short term, be higher than under the previous all-print arrangements. With foresight and planning, librarians can achieve the most effective outcome—for themselves and users alike.


Roger C. Schonfeld is Coordinator of Research for Ithaka, a nonprofit organization formed to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of academia. Eileen Gifford Fenton is Executive Director of the Electronic-Archiving Initiative, an effort that was launched by JSTOR and is being incubated by Ithaka with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

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