Earlier this month I read this article by Kenneth Frazier from D-Lib Magazine which argues that academic libraries should reconsider the value of so-called “big deals” from publishers. The core of the argument is that the downsides of these journal packages outweigh the benefits of convenience and an arguably lower cost per title. I say “arguably” about cost per title because, if one excludes the titles in a bundle that are rarely or never used when calculating per title cost, the value proposition is significantly different.
The simple fact is that publisher bundling “deals” are larded with what, from the point of view of usage, is simply junk – obscure titles of little value that can only be sold by tying them to more desirable resources. If I want “Cell Biology” for my researchers, I also must buy “Dancing Times,” even if no one on my campus uses the latter.* At my institution, to give just one example, over 30% of the titles in our journal package from Wiley are “zero-use,” but it is still less expensive to buy the package than to subscribe, at list price, only to the titles that would get substantial use. This tying of titles, and enforcing the bulk purchase by charging grossly-inflated “list prices” for title-by-title purchases, is highly coercive, as Frazier points out, but it also creates some perverse incentives for the publishers themselves, which led me to think about the potential consequences of big deals for things like peer review.
Publishers make more money using these big deals, of course. They justify the price tag of a package by highlighting how many titles we are getting. They claim that the annual price increases, which far outstrip any growth in our collection budgets, are justified because of the growth in the number of papers published. These sales techniques give the publishers a strong motive to encourage the proliferation of titles in order to increase the perceived value of their products and continue to raise prices for each package. In short, there is an incentive to publish more journals, even if they do not meet basic academic standards of quality or appeal only to a tiny niche of research that is unneeded on many campuses.
It is ironic that we hear a lot about the incentive to publish without attention to quality in the open access world, where the unfortunate phrase “predatory publishing” has become almost a cliche, but we often fail to notice the commercial incentives that encourage similar practices in the subscription market, thanks to these “big deals. More is better, regardless of quality, and it justifies ever increasing prices.
The impact on peer review is inevitable. As more and more articles are submitted, the bandwidth for review is stretched thin. We hear about this a lot; faculty members complaining about how many requests to review they get, and also complaining about the declining quality of the feedback they receive on their own articles. Yet we seldom make the obvious connection. Big deals, with the pressure for more and more articles to publish, encourage the trend to require more articles in our tenure reviews, and to ask graduate students to have multiple publications even before they complete their degrees. These packages also have the effect of reducing the quality of peer review. This is simple logic – the more widgets you make, the less able you are to assure the quality of each widget while still remaining cost effective. As publishers turn out articles like so many widgets, the decline in peer review, attested to in so many stories of its failures, is as logical as it is damaging. It becomes no surprise at all when we hear faculty say, as I have heard twice in recent weeks, that the peer review process at non-commercial open access publications is the best and most helpful feedback process they have experienced in years.
Prestigious publishers keep their impact factors high by rejecting lots of articles. In the era of the digital big deal, those articles still get published, however, they just slide down to lower-ranked journals, and the standard of review decreases. Big deals do not just harm the sustainability of the library subscription market, although they certainly do that; they also undermine the very activity they were born to support. The scholarly publishing industry, which after initially trying to ignore the digital environment has now turned to ruthless exploitation of it, has become actively detrimental to the scholarly enterprise itself.
*Author’s note: This example simply uses a very highly ranked title from Web of Science and a very low-ranked one; it is illustrative but does not necessarily reflect the actual subscription at my institution or any other.