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.