Good Citizens and the Historic Spend

The news and commentary surrounding the Research Works Act and the Elsevier boycott is coming faster than I can keep up, so I’ve been dipping my toes occasionally, making my way through some of the links posted at Confessions of a Science Librarian, plus a couple of things that I don’t think John has linked to yet, including this Richard Poynder interview with Alicia Wise from Elsevier (via Infodocket) and this long justification of the boycott signed by 34 prominent mathematicians (via NewAPPS).

Alicia Wise was also quoted last week in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: “while Elsevier in the 1980s and 1990s did increase prices steeply year after year, that has stopped. ‘We got it wrong then. But we’ve improved and have become good citizens,’ she said. So much of the community ire comes from past reputation, not present practice, she said.” The problem is that “past reputation” is related to “present practice.”

They got it wrong, sort of. In my own previous summary of Elsevier’s actions, I wrote that “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.” They “got it wrong” because they were raising prices faster than library budgets but were leaving libraries with the option of unsubscribing from individual titles. Now they’ve “gotten it right” because they’ve removed that option.

Regardless, the response acknowledges prices increased too steeply every year for more than a decade. Price have increased less steeply since the rise of the “big deal,” but with other consequences. Nevertheless, if we assume that the previous very steep increases were solely because Elsevier could profit in a monopoly environment, then the prices libraries were left with facing the “big deals” were already exorbitant. Libraries thus began subscribing to “big deals” after paying way too much previously, but it’s not like they started paying less to Elsevier than they did in the bad old days that created Elsevier’s “past reputation.” They still pay more, but the “more” rises less.

Combine this thought with a phrase Elsevier likes, the “historic spend.” Elsevier wants libraries to continue to pay for access to their journal packages based upon what they have paid before, the “historic spend,” regardless of current needs or budgets. But the “historic spend” grew out of pricing levels that were so exploitative libraries finally had to stop subscribing to journals they needed. Add to this the fact that Elsevier doesn’t want anyone to know what anyone else is spending on Elsevier journals, going so far as to sue Washington State University to keep them from releasing an unredacted copy of their contract with Elsevier.

Just considering this and not regarding all the other charges against them, only the truly naive could believe Elsevier is a “good citizen” in the world of scholarly publishing rather than a corporation with the sole goal of maximizing its profit. As I’ve written before, I don’t think that makes them evil; it just makes them a typical corporation. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone in academia should believe their corporate spin.