Notes on the Serials Crisis

I’ve also been wanting to enter the discussion Meridith Farkas started over Ebsco getting exclusive and expensive control over a journal her community needs. On a number of collection issues, lately I’ve wanted to just link to Barbara Fister’s columns in the Library Journal and comment, "Yeah, what she said," especially since in this case she’s partly said what I’ve already said in Dealing with the Pusher Man, including a comment on journal title monopolies with title comparisons that sounds awfully familiar.

But what I have to say is related to part of the  Ithaka Faculty Survey 2009

Let me back up, though. There are a lot of things I think librarians have done right in the past few decades. Unlike some, I think they’ve been adapting and adopting and changing for a long time. But there’s one problem that librarians have tried to solve for thirty years and failed. When it comes to the so-called serials crisis, librarians have screwed the pooch. (If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, then read or watch The Right Stuff, ideally both.)  And you know what? It’s not our fault. To slightly adapt Chuck Yeager, sometimes you get a pooch that no one cares is being screwed. 

Consider this "finding" from the Ithaka survey: "Despite several years of sustained efforts by publishers, scholarly societies, libraries, faculty members, and others to reform various aspects of the scholarly communications system, a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change." Like the other findings, this one will hardly come as a surprise to librarians.

Librarians have been cutting serials and complaining about vendors for a generation at least, and working diligently to educate academics about the economics of scholarly communication for over a decade. Even I once gave a talk to faculty showing how the rise in STM serial prices made it harder for junior professors in the humanities to get tenure, and I hadn’t been a librarian for that long. The problems are obvious and there for anyone with eyes to see. No one wants to see but librarians, and even if they did see there’s nothing they could do about it. The problem is systemic to academia and it’s tied to the tenure process. Professors want to publish in the best journals they can to get tenure or gain a reputation. They have every incentive to keep publishing in the top journals and no incentive to published only in open access journals or low cost journals. There are journals libraries "must" have, and enough libraries will get them to keep the system going. The entire academic tenure system in the United States would have to change its goals and incentives for the "serials crisis" to end. That’s not a change that will be driven by librarians.

I want to compare this to another systemic "crisis" in academia, the rapid and continuing decline of tenure track jobs in the humanities. This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and this one in the NYT are the most recent thing I’ve seen on the issue on the very off chance it’s unfamiliar to you.. The underlying causes are different. The overproduction of of humanities PhDs for 40 years is driven by many causes, but the result is the same. There are too many PhDs for the jobs available. Everybody knows it. Everybody complains about it. Nobody can do anything about it. And no one in power wants to, anyway.

I’m also reminded of an encounter from my days at a liberal arts college. I was the liaison to the English department among others, and one of the English professors once requested the library purchase a very expensive microfilm set to support a portion of her research. I would have liked to, because she seemed to be doing some interesting work. But it was much too expensive for our budget and I had to turn her down. Visibly frustrated, she complained that the college expected her to do research, but couldn’t pay to support that research. This is an issue William James called the PhD octopus, and Jacques Barzun recognized as the drive in academia from the 1940s on to make sure that every institution of higher education from research universities to junior colleges had PhDs teaching the courses. The PhD is a research degree, and once upon a time wasn’t necessary to teach undergraduates, especially lower level undergraduates. But colleges wanted PhDs to seem more important and compete with others. 

Traditionally, liberal arts colleges focused on undergraduate education. In practice, they still do. But their professors are now required to research like professors at research universities without the support. It’s a systematic issue. Everyone knows about it. People complain. No one cares. And if they do, they can’t do anything about it anyway. When you have hundreds of PhDs competing to teach freshman composition, then there’s a problem with the system. However, once more it’s a systematic problem built up over decades, not one that can be easily solved. 

This is also why despite my frustrations, I don’t blame the vendors. For the most part, they’re not acting unethically just because they act contrary to the morals and desires of librarians. Librarians want to provide people with the information they need. Vendors want to make money. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it’s not from the benevolence of Elsevier, Ebsco, and Sage that we expect our journals, but from their regard to their own interest. They’re not necessarily evil or unethical, but they don’t operate by librarian standards. To keep expecting them to, and to be frustrated when they don’t, is a problem with our expectations rather than their practices. Watching some librarians try to deal with the behemoth vendors as if they have the same values as librarians reminds me of Dr. Johnson’s saying that marriage after divorce is the triumph of hope over experience. 

Keeping that in mind, we still get some value for our money or we wouldn’t be working with the vendors at all. It would be very expensive for libraries to deal separately with every publisher and impossible for them to host online content individually in the way vendors can. Barbara Fister pointed out that in an informal survey a lot of librarians were happy with Ebsco. If we were really that unhappy, if we weren’t getting value for our money, then we’d do things differently. The time might come when that happens, but I suspect the vendors would know when that was happening and would adjust accordingly. A dead addict can’t pay for a fix.

Meredith had a follow-up post wondering whether some organization on our part could battle this "Goliath." ACRL? Tried weakly and failed, though they helped educate a lot of librarians on the issues. Consortia? I don’t see it happening. Consortia are there to negotiate prices and deal with vendors. When it comes to the painful and likely impossible decisions that would have to be made to solve this problem, consortia are only as strong and willful as their individual members, and in my experience will balk only at systematic outrageousness, not at something as relatively minor as one journal becoming much more expensive. It can happen. I saw it happen last fall as one vendor proposed a ridiculously high price increase for a consortium. In fact, "Dealing with the Pusher Man" was an adaptation of an internal ema
il I sent arguing against accepting that deal. The vendor attempt fell through, but it was because the price hike was so outrageous as many libraries were cutting funding that it just wasn’t possible. Vendors know when they’ve pushed libraries to the brink, so they pull back, all with the goal of maximizing their profit. 

I think dealing with increasing costs and the loss of control that comes from accessing information rather than owning it is one of the most serious ongoing problems for academic libraries, both for budgeting and preservation issues. Other than fight guerrilla battles here and there as circumstances permit, there’s not much we can do about it, though, because while it’s one of the most serious problems for libraries, it’s not one of the most serious problems for academia. Libraries don’t drive research; research drives libraries. We’re just the research support arm of an academic Leviathan. We can do our best to understand the issues and explain them to others as necessary, but until most faculty and university administrations think there’s a huge problem, libraries can do very little. Even if it was viewed as a major academic problem, the root causes would have to be addressed over a period of years or even decades to begin solving it.

So what can be done? Very little, and it’s not our fault. I suspect there are other issues that will overwhelm higher education long before librarians’ serials crisis becomes a truly academic crisis. Already we can see the warning signs. The liberal arts and sciences are losing ground in higher education to be replaced by professional programs that people will pay for because supposedly they will get jobs. We’ll see more programs in business, education, nursing, maybe even librarianship, and geared to training practitioners rather than training future researchers. This intersects with more trends in higher education: the increasing reliance upon adjunct labor, the slow disappearance of tenure-track jobs, and the rise of distance education (at the moment aimed mostly at professional degrees or practical training). Adjuncts teaching 4/4 loads won’t be doing much research or publishing.

What will a world of higher education modeled on the University of Phoenix look like? There will be fewer doctoral programs, especially in the liberal arts and sciences. Thus, there will be fewer graduate students to train. With the decline in graduate enrollments, there will be less need of research professors to train the grad students as they engage in their own scholarship and publishing. Thus, there will be less scholarly publishing and less demand for scholarly journals. Instead of the proliferation of esoteric and hyper-specialized titles we’ve seen in the past few decades, we could instead see a reversal where there aren’t enough specialists to support those journals. 

As higher education remakes itself into a marketable, profit-driven exercise in pragmatic job training, the problems we see now will gradually disappear, no doubt to be replaced by new problems that we also can’t solve. All we can do is educate ourselves, explain our cause, and lookout for skirmishes we can win. And maybe hope, because sometimes hope does triumph over experience.