Zero-sum journal publishing game

Dec 02 2010 Published by under Open Access

Not to toot my own horn or anything—okay, okay, I admit, I like it as much as anyone when my sad excuse for a crystal ball works—but the rumblings about the economic underpinnings of toll-access journal publishing coming unmoored are getting louder.

I said:

Toll-access journal publishing will become a zero-sum game, if it isn’t already. Every dollar of additional profit for the Elseviers and Informas of this world will be ripped from the pockets of other journals and journal publishers, including scholarly societies that haven’t already signed deals with one devil or another.

And so what do I see in my feedreader today? (JUST TODAY. And I read my feedreader several times daily, so this is not buildup.)

Hate to be a Chicken Little, but that sky is looking mighty precariously balanced just now.

So what does this mean for you, O Scientist? You, O Humanist?

Well, if your libraries have successfully insulated you from serials shock heretofore, expect that happy situation to end, abruptly and horribly. (How do you know if you are well-insulated by your library? If "I have all the access I need" or "I know everybody who matters can read what I publish" have ever passed your lips, you are well-insulated. Also poorly-informed, but that is a common symptom of well-insulatedness.) Chances are good you're going to lose access to some core literature in the next year or three, and it could be a lot if a Big Deal suddenly evaporates. Interlibrary loan will not help you. Academic samizdat is chancy (and I wouldn't be surprised to see more attempted crackdowns on it, even lawsuits). Nobody's going to throw more money at libraries. There is no more money.

We'll also see more protests of the California-versus-Nature-Publishing-Group ilk, and maybe some more transparency about library budgets. Not nearly enough more; libraries are both naturally timorous and politically embroiled. But more. Consider participating in the protests, researchers. Publishers listen to you in a way they don't listen to us.

I also said:

No one seems to agree with me on this, but I grow more confident by the day: small, low-subscriber-base journals at Big Deal publishers are in deep trouble as well. They add overhead but no especial additional profit, so they are obvious cost-cutting targets. Perhaps a journal massacre won’t happen right away; EBSCO particularly still seems to be on an acquisitions spree. I do believe it will happen, though—and when it does, some of those journals will re-form as gold-OA, while most of the rest will simply fold, publisher-hopping not being an option.

And I still believe this, even if no one else does. Your favorite publishing outlet may not be long for this world. Better look for some backups. I don't actually consider this necessarily a bad thing. I'm not fond of the idea that any article can get published somewhere, because frankly, a lot that is published shouldn't be (this is based on my own professional reading, but I hear it's the same in other fields). I also think there's way too much overhead involved in duplicative journals and repetitive article-submission patterns. We might come out of this mess with a more rational and streamlined system; I sure wouldn't complain.

Humanists, I don't actually expect much more plundering of monograph budgets. Mind you, if it would help, it'd probably happen, but the amounts left for monographs are a drop in the bucket compared to what serials publishers want to bleed us for. I do expect more university-press closures and more presses becoming part of libraries.

Librarians, I expect that we will be under the gun. We know from Ithaka that our most-prized service is access facilitation, meaning that faculty see us primarily as wallets. When we can't do that any more—yes, even though that's fundamentally not our fault—we can expect many more faculty to wonder why the hell we exist. We'd better damn well have an answer. Or three. Or ten. More answers is good. What we must not do is rest on our collection laurels. Those laurels are about to be stomped flat and dumped in the gutter. Get ready.

This year feels to me the way 2005 felt in the housing market. Big stupid money was still rampant, but the foundation-cracks were evident to some wise souls. Lots of happytalk and problem-denial all over the place. And then everything went off the cliff. I don't know if this will turn out to be an apt comparison, nor am I entirely sure what the cliff-drop will look like. I do think it's coming, though. I do think that.

2 responses so far

  • Chris Rusbridge says:

    "We know from Ithaka that our most-prized service is access facilitation, meaning that faculty see us primarily as wallets. When we can’t do that any more—yes, even though that’s fundamentally not our fault—we can expect many more faculty to wonder why the hell we exist."

    I have to poke a bit at the "not our fault" comment. The great success in insulating this problem from faculty is a librarian decision. The disconnect is fundamentally important in allowing the problem to build to the size it did.

    AFAIK this all started with Robert Maxwell and Pergamon Press, realising he could take librarians for suckers: pay up front, double digit inflation etc. It got worse with the digital revolution. There's responsibility on both sides of that deal.

    So in a way, this could be seen as a collective failure of library stewardship! (Ducks)

    • Dorothea says:

      I don't disagree. I am deeply frustrated by libraries' continued can-kicking spinelessness, in fact.

      I do think we were caught up in an ugly catch-22 not of our making: faculty behavior was making our lives hell, but faculty wouldn't listen to our increasingly-dire warnings about it, and if we let our BEHAVIOR warn them (i.e. saying "no, you cannot haz; literature NOT YOURS") we would have been pilloried.

      And we will be pilloried, the next few years. Count on it. Won't be fun at all.