Dealing with the Pusher Man

We’re discussing some of our journal packages from large publishers, so I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately. Those who work in or have paid much attention to collection development for the past couple of decades are aware of the impact serial price increases have had on library budgets. I think this has been one of the most pressing issue in academic libraries for a long time. In general, I believe libraries should pull out of most package deals with publishers and go back to managing subscriptions on a title by title basis, as well as have the willingness to cut those titles with exorbitant price raises. This provides libraries their only bargaining power with publishers.

I’ve heard a number of librarians over the years claim that Elsevier or Wiley or Springer or whomever were “evil,” and I can’t say I’ve always been more generous in my appraisals. It doesn’t help us to bemoan our fate or ask why the publishers act like they do. They do things for the same reason all corporations do anything: to maximize profit. Why this big increase? To maximize profit. Why that pricing model? To maximize profit. That’s all the “evil” publishers like Elsevier do, and they do it well. As long as they’re not being fraudulent (like publishing advertising as medical scholarship), they’re no more evil than any corporation. Publishers aren’t there to be information providers. Providing information is just the way they make money. I think scholarly information is a public good and should be kept out of commercial hands for the most part, but that’s certainly not going to happen. Blaming commercial publishers for maximizing profits is like blaming fish for swimming.

We’re never operating in an equal bargaining position, partly because journals aren’t commodities. Each journal is a monopoly. We can’t unsubscribe from Brain and choose Mind instead just to save $10,000. Publishers know how unlikely we are to sacrifice key titles. Many years ago they tried to maximize their profit by raising journal prices at four times the rate of inflation. When libraries finally cracked and started cutting subscriptions, they got us to give up all control and agree to multi-year packages where they would raise the prices each year by only twice the rate of inflation, and we agreed to ease our pain. Then they threw in a lot of stuff we neither want not need and pretended they were doing us a favor, while in reality they were just trying to get us hooked so we’d do anything they asked later just to keep getting our fix. Plus, now we’re charged for “access,” and don’t even own anything that we can preserve in some cases. They were performing as rational agents in the marketplace. The question is, can we?

It doesn’t do any good to try to bargain with publishers if we have nothing to bargain with. They’ve seen for 20 years how willing we are to make deals which benefit them more than they benefit us. The only way to have any bargaining power is to get out of the packages and resume control title by title. Someone might ask,  what if they go back their old ways and start raising journal prices exorbitantly? The only answer is that we have to cancel the journals they do this for, and with hindsight know that moving into multi-year packages won’t solve our problems, either. If we’re not willing to go back to title by title control, and we’re also not willing to cancel subscriptions even to high profile journals if they start raising prices exorbitantly, then we have NO bargaining power whatsoever, and probably never will. Unless we do this, there’s certainly no use in trying to fix the blame on the publishers; we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

There has probably never been a better time for libraries to start acting more aggressively in the marketplace. Librarians have been putting the case against commercial STM journal publishers for years, and the faculty don’t like it when publishers do this stuff any more than we do. But now libraries have an even better reason to act. Libraries and universities are under enormous financial strain, and this is the perfect time to try to regain our bargaining power. This is the time to stop paying for packages containing a lot of titles we don’t want, don’t need, and don’t use, and to take back what control we can. It’s no use damning the Pusher Man. The only way to deal with the Pusher Man is to push back.