February 17, 2018

What Scholarly Publishers Want To Know | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Perspective from the 2010 SSP Librarians Focus Group

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

My interaction with scholarly publishers has consisted primarily of short conversations at library conference booths. But that all changed on February 2 when I found myself one of just a few librarians in a room full of scholarly publishers.

What was the occasion? The sixth annual Society of Scholarly Publishers Librarians Focus Group, held in Washington, DC, on February 2.  I hadn’t heard of it until two months ago when one of the organizers, Kimberly Lutz, assistant director of communications and external relations, University Libraries, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, invited me to join in this year’s panel. There, six librarians from different institutions and backgrounds come together to address contemporary issues of concern to both groups, and to respond to questions from the publishers. This year the panel sought to focus on where we saw things headed in coming years for our collections, and possible repercussions for scholarly publishers.

The obvious question
We started out with the big topic on everyone’s mind—money. How much did we have and how were we planning to spend what’s left? That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the publishers did want to know to what extent our libraries were experiencing budget cuts, and if so, were their journals falling victim to the ax.

Among the diverse libraries represented, none had dire news to share. Each librarian reported cuts in the past year, flat budgets, and uncertain prospects for 2011, but no one related draconian cuts of the type being experienced at California institutions of higher education and their libraries. Certainly none had drastic plans to eliminate scholarly journal subscriptions.

That led to the next important question. How was the print/digital balance being affected; were we eliminating print whenever an online version was available? “It depends” was the common response. Our medical librarian was well on the way to a no-print journals collection, but those of us from research universities shared a different picture. All of our current print journal collections had smaller footprints owing to a preference for e-versions, but by no means were we abandoning print. It really depended on the discipline. Nonetheless, any publisher still waiting to make titles available electronically would certainly want to rethink that limited strategy after our discussion.

It’s not that easy
One mistaken impression held by the publishers is that academic librarians are fairly free to cancel titles and discard the print backfiles. Two of us panelists reminded the publishers that while cost and space constraints are certainly considerations in these decisions, the political challenges related to eliminating print—or even just moving it offsite—are considerable.

We cited Syracuse University, where a plan to move print materials to an offsite location was met with significant protests by students and faculty. Even though some forthcoming studies point to the economic advantages of eliminating print collections for electronic counterparts, a recent Inside Higher Ed article points out that the real barrier to savings may be student and faculty resistance to digital collections. “That report suggested that it could take up to half a century—or two generations—before faculty in certain disciplines will abide the preeminence of digital over print.” If the scholarly publishers thought we were discarding print like there was no tomorrow, for now, they should know that’s hardly the case, especially at research libraries.

Last copy saved
The publishers are also interested to know how libraries work in consortia to tackle their problems, and how those relationships impact collection decisions. No one came right out and asked, but I wondered if what the publishers really wanted to know was if we and our consortial partners planned to buy one subscription for the whole group and cancel the rest. I’ve not heard of any such plans.

What we did share was news of our shared print archives or “last copy saved” initiatives—a strategy to collectively eliminate print journal backfiles at all but a few designated libraries. Librarians from the PALCI and WRLC groups related plans for programs that would create dark and light archives so that only a minimal number of members would need to keep long runs of old print journals. Where these programs exist, they target primarily scientific journals whose digital volumes are already well accepted.

A smorgasbord of issues
Throughout the day both groups posed questions and shared ideas that took the proceedings down a path of issues familiar to all present. Librarians and publishers expressed dismay over changing user search behavior that leads consumers of scholarly literature to alternative content or to bypass the library in getting to the traditional journals. We librarians shared user study research from the Ithaka Group and Simon Inger Consulting that reveal how scholarship is changing in a digital age.

There was some lively discussion about bundled journal and ebook collections, and the librarians clearly made their likes and dislikes known. Librarians expressed their desire to have more flexibility in customizing journal bundles instead of being stuck with titles that would get little use, but acknowledged that bundle pricing was attractive. More angst was offered for ebook collections that limited borrowing to only one user at a time or which limited printing or downloading capabilities. Yes, we have some gripes, the librarians told the publishers, but the bundles have some merits and we’ll continue to consider them. Could they be improved? Absolutely.

I was surprised that when we got to a discussion of open access that the proceedings were quite cordial. I expected more fireworks, but the publishers know the issues well and understand that our tribes must work together to find mutually acceptable models for pricing and distribution. Nor did we librarians get much of a reaction when we brought up exclusivity and embargoes, recently in the library news. These appear to be accepted practices, although there was no clear indication that the majority of the publishers present planned to seek such deals.

Who’s really worried?
Overall it was equally valuable to hear from my fellow panelists as it was to connect with the publisher representatives as they shared their concerns. If I had one thought to sum up the experience it would be that the publishers seem genuinely more worried about the future than academic librarians. Despite how academic librarians tend to obsess about the future, we have little reason to believe our libraries and our jobs won’t be a part of it.

Scholarly publishers, however, see deep library budget cuts, institutional repositories, open access mandates, the growing need to offer their wares for an expanding array of platforms and devices, libraries with more and more consortial power, and other threats to their survival. You might say that from the scholarly publishers’ viewpoint the outlook is bleak. We can only hope that at the Seventh Annual Focus Group there will be more optimism all around.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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