The Malleable World (Wikipedia and Knowledge, Part 2)
Think Of It As Radio

Talking With Publishers

I've been asked to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks to talk about my "vision of the library of the future."  The audience in this case will be 100 senior managers of Elsevier.  Talk about an anthropological expedition!

Elsevier personifies everything that librarians hate about publishers.  But that antipathy also reveals much of the economic ignorance that librarians bring to the issue.  Elsevier is routinely accused of price-gouging and of being "predatory".  As someone who sends nearly half a million dollars to Elsevier every year for our share of ScienceDirect, I'm certainly sympathetic to the pain, but Elsevier is just doing what successful companies are supposed to do.  I've heard librarians say, in disgust, "They just charge what they think the market will bear!"   The tone suggests this is the height of unethical behavior.  It is, of course, standard practice for setting prices in any market.  I've talked to reps of other publishers who say they just wait to see what kind of increase Elsevier is putting in and set theirs a percent or half a percent lower in order to come in under the radar.

Those who have invited me are hoping that I'll be able to say something that will affect the behavior of these Elsevier folks in some positive way that will help to mend their relationship with the library community.  That's a tall order. 

Transparency would help.   It could start with simply being more straightforward about pricing and profits and what they're trying to do.  When discussing pricing for some of the backfile sets, for example, I've heard Elsevier reps talk about the need to recover their costs and that they're offering a really heavily discounted price and similar sorts of things designed, presumably, to soften the librarians that they're talking to.  It usually doesn't work.  Librarians know that they're doing more than "recovering the costs" and the notion of a "discounted price" is only valid if somebody is actually being charged a standard price in the first place (many states in the US have laws about that sort of thing).  So librarians end up feeling suckered and their distrust for El-Severe grows.

But transparency in pricing is absolutely antithetical to the way of doing business of large corporations (this is nothing peculiar to Elsevier).  I don't know if such a shift is possible.  On the other hand, the risks for them are real.  For many years, Elsevier could ignore the complaints of librarians because, no matter how much we fussed, we kept buying the stuff, convinced that our faculties would be up in arms if we cancelled their journals.  Finally, in the last couple of years, librarians have been able to mobilize their faculties and some of those institutions are pushing back.  That's what it finally took to get Elsevier's attention.  At least some in the company hierarchy have begun to believe that a different kind of partnership with librarians is essential for their long-term survival.  (If they weren't serious about making changes, they certainly wouldn't have hired Tony McSean as Director of Library Relations.)

But, as would be the case in any company, I'm sure there is much disagreement in the ranks as to whether such changes are necessary or what form those changes ought to take.  When I talk to librarians about the society publishers, I point out that we share the same goals -- to distribute the literature as widely as possible.  The societies need to make money in order to do that.   With the for-profit publishers the terms are flipped -- they distribute the literature in order to make money.  So our goals and theirs are necessarily in a different kind of tension.  It doesn't mean that we can't find a way to be productive partners -- but I think it will require a greater degree of willingness, on both sides, to listen and learn.



Gillian Wood

I think most librarians understand that public companies (like Elsevier) exist to make a profit for their shareholders. What galls me is spending money allocated to public health by the government to prop up what I feel are excessive profits, gouged from excessive costs. I find it hard to justify to administrators why we should spend almost USD $5000 on Social Science and Medicine or $23,617 on Brain Research rather than essential equipment and medicine.

T Scott

I agree that in the ideal world, all of the money would remain within the academic/health enterprise. But what makes a particular level of profit "excessive"? I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, I'm just trying to define the terms.

Ian Duberry

There is an alternative of course. Open access journals are free to readers and charge a small amount to publish in them. Then we get away from the capitalist economics and get scientific information out to everyone for a minimum cost.

Bill Hooker

Ian has it. The answer is for the market simply to bear less, which it now can do by turning to OA journals.

T Scott

Noted -- although this is not likely to be a message that the Elsevier managers will be sympathetic to. The question then becomes: in an open access world, is there a role for a company like Elsevier, and, if so, what might that role consist of?

Mark D

It is possible that your faith in OA may be unfounded. The method of payment for publishing isn't the issue. The issue is monopoly power. Elsevier prices reflect its market power. Now it could be that the OA movement will weaken that power, resluting in lower prices. However, it is possible that the OA movement could have just the opposite affect.

Elsevier's profits are a reflection of its costs and prices. It could very well be that Elsevier is so profitable because it is just more efficient then its competitors (particularly society publishers). If that is so, the outcome of OA could lead to the failure of society publishing thus leaving the market to Elsevier and Kluwer (as the more efficient producers). The result in that case would be more power for Elsevier and higher prices. I am not saying that this is the most likely scenario but it is a plausable scenario.

The true question is; will OA ultimately increase or decrease competition? There is not yet enough evidence to answer this question.

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