EBSCO Information Services is not only a well-known database aggregator of academic journal literature and e-books, they also manage the purchase of print and electronic journal subscriptions for libraries and institutions (its original business). The other day I received EBSCO’s Serials Price Projections for 2014 (September 26, 2013). The main point was delivered to us unceremoniously, right at the top:
At the time of writing, we expect the overall effective publisher price increases for academic and academic/medical libraries for 2014 (before currency impact) to be in the range of 6 to 8 percent.
Since I have become used to budgeting a 10 percent annual increase for journals over the last several years this sounds almost (keyword) like a bargain.
Beyond this news, there were some interesting bits in their assessment of Market Dynamics, which included a strong awareness of the evolving impact of open access, despite the continuing dominance of the pay-for-access model. I was pleasantly surprised by the seriousness with which EBSCO took open access as it surveyed the journal publishing landscape.
Despite the pattern of predictability for price increases, the more interesting question is the debate on whether the current model is indeed as strong as it appears or if it is on the brink of disruption in a substantial way. Although the subscription model is by far the dominant one for purchases of content, there are undeniable indications of change and innovation. For example, publishers of non-predatory open access mega-journals have achieved robust profitability in a few notable cases. Questions surrounding open access funding and the administration of open access payments remain open, but the government and policy side of the debate appears to be tilting heavily toward open access support in either its green or gold manifestations. …
Some open access advocates would argue that an inflection point is coming soon and that a publishing business model change could be remarkably rapid. This possibility and the opposing forces within the publishing, academic, and governmental spheres are sparking a great deal of electricity and passion among the various industry stakeholders. However, for librarians responsible for budgeting and planning, the prudent courses is to assume an evolution on a longer scale and to continue to plan for difficult decisions at renewal time. (emphasis added)
Considering EBSCO’s influence in the market these are significant statements. Of course, the final take-away was EBSCO’s “prudent” advice that libraries should, for the time being, keep doing what we have been doing—that is, canceling more titles and paying more for the titles we keep. A colleague put it to me like this: “EBSCO apparently feels our pain, though they also hope to be the last package cancelled.”
Interspersed in this discussion was the further interesting forthrightness expressed by EBSCO regarding the problem of publisher consolidation, and its implications both for diversity in the publisher community and the inevitable economic impact on libraries. This then elicited a further nod to open access advocacy!
The question of how long the current model remains in place is a particularly urgent one not only for librarians responsible for collection development, but also for publishers on the smaller end of the size spectrum. In order to continue to purchase “Big Deal” content when even their negotiated price caps exceed overall budget increases, librarians must cut individual journal titles and other non-bundled content. These cuts have a disproportionate impact on smaller publishers, and it drives the consolidation of the STM publishing industry more and more to the top publishers. In response, the smaller publishers face a range of choices they may find unpalatable. They can sell their titles to a top tier publisher, embark on a growth strategy to climb into the upper tier of publishers themselves, or switch business models — for example, launching an open access mega-journal. For librarians, the fundamental end result of this publisher consolidation cycle is less and less bargaining power as negotiating leverage accrues each year to the top publishers. Open access advocates point to this trend as further evidence of how the subscription business model is fundamentally broken in its relationship to the academic world and libraries in particular. (emphasis added)
Though the report only mentions STM (Science, Technology, Medicine) specifically, and not the Humanities and Social Sciences, I doubt the picture is much different in these areas. Indeed, in the disciplines of Theology and Religious Studies I know that librarians have been watching the troubling consolidation of reputable, long established, and diversely published journals into the hands of a few major publishers with a consequent and sometimes dramatic increase in subscription price.
Whether specifically intended in this way, I believe EBSCO’s drawing the issues of publisher consolidation and open access closely together in this report is significant. Dusting off that old high school ecology textbook, we all know what happens to an ecosystem when diversity is reduced or eliminated. The life there becomes vulnerable to disease and infestation by pests. The spawning of new open access journals, not just by commercial publishers looking to capitalize on a new business opportunity driven by government and funder mandates, but especially by groups of scholars and libraries, is an important way to re-inject needed diversity into the scholarly communications ecosystem. It will be interesting to continue to listen for EBSCO’s assessments of this evolving space as we move forward.