[Authors note — this post was drafted back in January, so although the Scholarly Kitchen post that inspired it is a little old, the general themes are still relevant]
Joseph Esposito was being intentionally provocative, perhaps even tongue-in-cheek in places, in his post back in January, Why Elsevier is a Library’s Best Friend. There are some good exchanges with commenters, many of whom had the same thoughts I did as I read. Here are a few additional responses both to Esposito and to fellow SK’er David Crotty about the post and the back-and-forth in the comments.
Esposito on economies of scale:
We often hear that the monopoly in copyrights is what makes companies so profitable, but even publishers that lose money have full control of their copyrights. It is scale, not monopoly copyrights, that drives a high level of profitability. … With a thousand [web sites] you can hire skilled professionals and negotiate with suppliers for better pricing. This is what RELX does. On a per-unit basis RELX is probably paying less than the average publisher for the materials and services it needs. Only its peers in scale (Springer Nature, John Wiley, and Taylor & Francis) have the same purchasing clout in the marketplace.
But this isn’t just all about massive efficiencies, this is about the choices that have been made in exploiting the lack of substitution that comes with monopoly control of so many copyrights. Just because efficiencies of scale may be present doesn’t mean we have to allow ourselves to be gaslit by arguments about the behaviors that follow, as though these behaviors are inevitable and ANY actor that achieved the control and scale that Elsevier has would act this way.
Esposito on why libraries could never work with 2500 publishers:
The administrative cost of doing so would be prohibitive. The aggregations of Elsevier and its ilk reduce the cost of assessing and purchasing publications for libraries. This means libraries need a smaller staff in acquisitions and all the support services that go with it. It is simply remarkable how much libraries accomplish nowadays because of their intelligent focus on workflow planning.
We do manage to work with lots of other kinds of publishers without suffering the kinds of inflation and forced title blob purchasing (from now on, this is what I’m calling the big deal packages and all the other bundling) that we have with publishers of the scale and power of Elsevier and its kind. Ever heard of jobbers? As commenter Suzanne Goettker pointed out, we do this already with subscription agencies. It has created interesting innovative opportunities for the third parties who have developed approval plan services and other solutions to simplify our purchasing operations. A cooperative between not-for-profit scholarly societies theoretically could have done the same thing. Or, believe it or not, libraries might have figured out this particular scale thing on our own, and we might yet. We are pretty good at it from time to time. We’re creative about creating our own scaling solutions for sharing cataloging effort and records, doing pretty astonishing things as we get better and faster at borrowing materials from each other, including making massive changes to our own physical infrastructures. I think Esposito’s concern for libraries is misplaced. We are probably one of the most innovative, fast-moving (don’t laugh) organizations on our campuses in our willingness to look at solutions, including those introduced by third parties, to increase our internal efficiency. And as Björn Brembs pointed out in his comment on Esposito’s post, there are examples like SciELO, too.
Esposito on why bundling is OK:
This is also how many consumer services work; think, for example, of your cable TV bill. It is a structural property of the marketing of media in a digital age, and in this Elsevier should not be singled out either for praise or opprobrium.
The ‘everyone does it’ argument has never been a terribly strong one, but using the cable TV industry as an example is surprisingly apt. It would be harder to find a more antiquated model than that one, with many, many consumers frustrated by the forced bundling not only of channels they don’t want, but services they don’t necessarily need (cable + VOIP land line phone + internet).
There’s also this odd victim-blaming in the comments by David Crotty in response to another commenter, ‘Elle’:
What’s interesting to me is that, even knowing these charges, you still chose to publish in that journal. Clearly the costs are overcome by what you perceive you’re receiving from doing so.
‘Elle’ was describing the publication fees they were being required to pay (none of which, btw, seems to be an OA fee), a total of $2247 for a single article. Since they say the publisher they’re dealing with is one of the big 5, sounds like this is not a small not-for-profit. This response from Crotty reminded me of the types of comments made to people who live in economically depressed areas: “If it’s so bad, why don’t you just move?” without taking into account the overwhelming structural reasons why there are there in the first place, and how impossible it is to “just move.”
And while we’re on the subject, blaming the tenure and promotion system will only get us so far. The publishing imperative is not purely the creation of the academy. And to say that university faculty, in particular individual faculty, can buck or undo this system is to not only misunderstand academic power structures (faculty at most institutions are not as powerful as comments like Crotty’s would suggest, no matter the shared governance traditions) but to ignore the role of publishers in growing the mania for publishing, and for publishing in certain places, that lie behind these structures. Impact factor, explosions of niche journals, etc.
My library has large, expensive journal contracts with all of the usual big scholarly publishers, whose title blobs have the usual pattern of both extremely high use and abysmally low use. Thanks, blobbing algorithms, for figuring that exactly how to keep us on the hook. In terms of annual percentage increases, Elsevier is not the worst one we deal with — they’ve actually been reasonable the past few years — it’s just that that awesome scale thing makes it so painful, so even small increases are breathtaking for our bottom line. We also use the Elsevier Pure system as one of our primary Research Information Management platforms. As I’ve half-jokingly said when someone raises an eyebrow at me about this, I can accept no blame for this choice, it happened before I came to Minnesota. We also retain, in our campus data warehouse, a local copy of all of the Pure data. But the reality is that this tool, at the moment in time it came to Minnesota, offered high-quality features and services and it was entirely reasonable to have selected it. My previous institution, Northwestern University (NU), did the same, although the product Northwestern was initially interested in was Collexis, which was purchased by Elsevier while discussions at NU were ongoing. (Elsevier later acquired Pure, also developed elsewhere, and combined it with what had been Collexis.) At both NU and Minnesota, the decision to get on board was a complicated one, partly because the library was not the only player in the game, but also because the primary use cases were complicated, messy, and emerging. Elsevier can and does sell to anyone at the university who will listen and who has an interest in their products. Anyone who has been paying attention to the textbook market has seen this same thing playing out, and accelerating, there too. Textbook publishers no longer see the bookstore as their only partner.
I don’t think the answer is to try to block or outmarket either of these types of publishers. They have way more money to throw at sales staff to email everyone on campus until they get a hit than we have contacting those same people to let them know about the latest Cengage all-in offer to students. Did you think I was going to say I know what the answer is? I don’t, but I’m working on it, as is almost every other academic librarian, and an awful lot of faculty and other actors, out there. Continuing to work on building strong collaborations with our campus partners and other institutions on shared services is essential. Just because that first (or even the first, second AND third) multi-institution collaborative repository project failed doesn’t necessarily mean the idea is flawed. Pressing hard to limit payment for things that shouldn’t be protected by copyright (like metadata), or whose copyrights should never have been transferred in the first place, is another. Planning for platform change, and more rapid platform change than we’ve had to manage in the past, would be a good way to go. Given a choice I’d rather deal with the Elseviers of the world in a competitive services market than their current content monopoly space. But I also have to be ready to jump ship if the good terms I presumably negotiated in year one are looking less good because of unreasonable price increases, sale of the company, or even just much better service and performance elsewhere. The Pure service was, and still is, far from perfect. Getting out, and especially getting out quickly, can take a lot of vigilance at contract time, plus contingency planning that is going to cost money. It’s hard to do this alone, and the multi-institution conversations underway in the wake of the bepress buyout give me hope. My organization is migrating from one learning management system to another right now in an astonishingly complex, difficult, but still remarkably rapid way. Every single school or college and almost every faculty member is involved. Imagine what it would be like if these same actors were as invested in our library systems, our publishing systems, our research information systems.
I may not know the complete solution to the wicked problem we’re grappling with, but I don’t think we should have to agree with someone telling us there is no problem, let alone that Elsevier is actually doing us a favor.
Authors note: in case it needs repeating, I’m speaking only my personal opinions here, and not on behalf of my library or my university.