We're All "Digital Services Librarians" Now
The Difficulty of Defining Excess

No More Print?

Over on the liblicense-l list, Mark Leader, from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) has just posted a question:

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) is considering discontinuing the print version of its journal Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBC). We welcome comments from the library community about the value of print journals and the adequacy of LOCKSS, Portico, and PubMed Central as archives of electronic journals. We are also curious about whether librarians would be interested in a print-on-demand option for obtaining archival print copies if regular print subscriptions were discontinued.

The impetus for discontinuing the print edition is a desire to reduce author charges, especially for color figures. The cost of producing the print edition greatly exceeds revenue from print subscriptions. Author charges (page charges and color charges) are the largest source of revenue for the journal. In effect, authors are subsidizing the print subscriptions.

(There's more to his post, which you can find here.)

At my institution, we're canceling as much print as we can anyway.  One of our criteria is the adequacy of the  preservation/archiving  plan, and I'm glad that Leader mentions several.  I'll confess to a fondness for LOCKSS, largely because of the philosophy behind it.  The National Library of Medicine has a statutory responsibility to preserve the biomedical literature, and I have a great deal of confidence in PubMed as a perpetual archive.  I'm not as familiar with Portico, but it seems to be pretty promising.  My advice to ASCB would be to participate in all of them.  We're still early enough into all of this that we don't know what the best long-term solution will be.

We're also concerned with perpetual rights to material should we ever end our subscription/license altogether.   The notion of offering a print-on-demand option for archival copies is an intriguing one, although not one that I think we'd avail ourselves of here.  As Leader points out further on in his message, ASCB considers the online journal to be the journal of record anyway and  "[m]ore than 60% of the articles include supplemental data or videos online."  I'm not sure why someone would want to keep archival copies of the print issue under those circumstances.  We'd just want to be sure that we have some kind of binding agreement that would insure electronic access to the material that we've paid for.

We certainly don't need to keep the print to satisfy our user base.  Two years ago we stopped getting any print for our ScienceDirect titles.  I did not get a single question, comment, or expression of concern from faculty or students.   We've reached the point where librarians tend to worry a lot more about the print than the people who use our libraries do.

The kind of publishing model that ASCB typifies (and many of the Highwire Press/DC Principles journals are similar) has contributed, over time, to my questioning of the all-or-nothing approach to open access.  Their institutional subscription rate is $578/year for 5400 pages, so they can hardly be accused of contributing to the serials prices crisis.  Given the nature of their publication it is unlikely that anyone who would need the material for their research or educational purposes is in an institution that doesn't provide access, and it's hard for me to fathom the urgent need of some member of the general public for articles from the two months worth of issues that are embargoed before they make everything free anyway.  Why shouldn't institutions help to keep the costs to authors down by paying a very reasonable subscription fee for one of the best journals in the field?

I have, from time to time, asked hardcore open access advocates why a journal like this needs to be immediate open access.  I have yet to hear a convincing argument.


Tom George

On your first point, is your institution open to the public as well as faculty and students? From my experience it was 'walk-in users' who were most concerned about disappearing print copies. Some publishers imposed a no 'walk-in user' access policy on E-journals, which had a clear negative effect on those who'd previously been able to access print copies. If publishers could be made to ensure access provisions were as good as (or better than) they were for print copy, I'd be all for a 'no more print' policy.

On your second point, presumably you wouldn't argue that there are no publishers who charge excessive amounts, and impose excessive embargoes? (and therefore are contributing to the serials and access crisis). The follow on from that is to ask at what level a publisher's price is too high, or what length embargo is too long? If you start trying to suggest a fair price level or a fair embargo length, everything becomes subjective and complicated.

Perhaps someone could come up with a solution whereby all current subscribers to a journal would guarantee to continue paying their current subscription fee for the next x amount of years, if the publishers made the journal completely open access? This could eradicate the free rider problem (if institutions were tied in to an ongoing subscription, they wouldn't be able to back out once the journal was made open access) whilst ensuring there was enough money to allow the journal to continue. It would admittedly be an organisational and logistical nightmare, and would reduce the amount of freedom and choice over library budgets - which is why it almost certainly won't happen!


"I have yet to hear a convincing argument."

What were the arguments? (I'm genuinely interested.)


T Scott

Bill -- actually, when I've brought this up in online discussions it's usually just been ignored altogether. In person, it tends to result in a change of subject. The one good response that I got from someone was that the current subscription system is irretrievably broken, and that any publisher that tries to hang on to it is going to go out of business anyway when the whole scholarly publishing enterprise collapses. I think that's an intriguing argument, although not quite convincing. I agree that the current subscription system overall is unsustainable, but we've seen pretty dramatic changes in the last two or three years already, and that will certainly continue. I don't see why some elements of subscriptions couldn't continue and provide some valuable funding for some small, reasonably priced, society journals.

T Scott

Tom -- on the first point, we are open to the general public and we simply don't sign licenses that can't be amended to allow use by walk-ins. While that was somewhat of a sticking point early on, my sense is that by now most publishers selling to the library market understand that it's something that we have to have.

Your second point brings up an issue that I've thought about a lot, and it deserves its own post, so I'll follow up on that shortly.

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