Salience in the Cost of Academic Journals

I’ve written briefly before on the seemingly blithe response faculty members have to their academic journals’ rising costs. I wonder if the problem can be partly addressed by making the faculty more aware of the costs that libraries pay on their behalf for access to these journals.

In particular, I wonder about the feasibility and effectiveness of such a scheme: supose that every time a member of the faculty clicks on a link to access a paid journal, whether it’s through J-Stor, Google Scholar, or the publisher’s website directly, the libraries can arrange for a little text box to pop up that reads something along the line of, “The library pays X dollars for your use of this article”.  The exact language of the pop-up can be refined, of course. Perhaps it will inform the researcher of the cost of the journal on a annual basis, instead of article per use; perhaps the tone of the text can be more or less direct/aggressive.  The main point is that this will be a reminder that somebody is paying for the journals, and this reminder will be delivered on a continued basis, at the exact moment when researchers are most aware of the resources they are consuming. (Naturally, the pop-ups shouldn’t be obnoxious and should be easily closed with a click of the mouse.)

The reason I think that such a reminder can have an effect is that there has been research by notable economists showing that people change their behavior when the price for a product becomes more obvious or salient. See Chetty, Looney, and Kroft (2008) paper in the American Economic Review. Or, here’s a link to a free version. Nifty-ly, the authors find that when people are faced with the price + tax cost of an item in the shopping aisle instead having the same price + tax taken at the register, they buy less of the item. That is, for the same item, selling at the same price, showing people the tax that they eventually have to pay for the item reduces their propensity to buy it. Put different, increased awareness of the (total) cost of a product induces changes in consumption behavior.

May the increased salience on the price of academic journals have the same effect on the faculty? The aim, of course, isn’t for researchers to stop using academic journals altogether. Instead, such a pop-up may help faculty members realize that the journals they read have a cost and that this cost may be high and escalating. More importantly, it allows professors to compare this cost across journals and adjust their behavior (or not) as they see fit. Ultimately, may such a system garner  much-needed support from the faculty corner for librarians in the latter’s negotiations with academic publishers?

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