A Proposal for Dealing with High Subscription Prices

I might as well have titled this post “give ‘em the money”. It’s a variation on a proposal I made earlier to deal with the twin problem of high subscription prices for academic journals and lack of faculty support for librarians trying to negotiate better terms. I had said that such a problem naturally arises when the final consumer of a good does not foot the bill for the product he consumes: when one does not pay for what one eats, one does not care how much money the food costs. I previously proposed that one way to address this problem was to raise awareness on the part of faculty members on the costs of journal subscriptions by displaying the price of the journal whenever a faculty accesses one of its articles.

I now want to take that proposal one step further and advocate for an experiment in which librarians simply hand over to faculty members the budget for journal subscription, effectively making journals a patron-driven acquisition, with the twist that now the patron pays the bills himself. There are plenty of kinks that need to be worked out for a scheme like this, but at its simplest, the idea works as follows: the librarian figures out how much he’s currently spending to support the work of, say, the classics department. He then divides this sum of money by the number of faculty members in the department, hands that money over to each of the professors, effectively increasing their paychecks by a bit.

In return, now every time the professors use a library resource, say, an journal article, he gets charged for that use. At the end of some period, the professor has to settle the invoice that comes due, i.e. pay it out of his own pocket. If he’s used a lot of articles from expensive journals, he has to pay a big bill. If he’s used a lot of open-access, more reasonably priced journals, his bill is smaller. The faculty is responsible for paying his bill in full, even if the amount exceeds what was originally added to his salary. On the flip side, if he was frugal in his journal usage, the leftover money once he’s discharged his bill is his to keep.

I expect such a proposal (made by a first-year student with little library-land experience) will receive a lot of push back. What will the librarians do if the faculty make all the selections themselves? Who will pay for the students to have access to the same materials? Don’t libraries have to sign long-term contracts with publishers to ensure access and so can’t just charge for the journals that get used? All these are legitimate concerns, and I certainly don’t have an operation-ready business plan to roll out. That said, I want to continue to play devil’s advocate and emphasize two things.

One, whatever the obstacles to such a scheme, it will solve one of the biggest problems facing academic libraries: managing exploding journal subscription prices. A faculty member that has to directly pay for a journal that he’s edited, refereed, or submitted his work to for free is going to be much more amenable to pushing that journal to price fairly or using another journal the next time he wants to publish. The experiment does not even have to be in place for perpetuity to effect such a change in attitude. It is possible that having to manage their resources for, say, six months will give the faculty a much greater appreciation for the expenses libraries absorb on their behalf. On the other hand, seeing so obviously what gets used, i.e. what gets paid for, enables librarians to negotiate much more aggressively with publishers, I imagine something along the line/dialogue of “Our faculty members only use journal X. We’re going to stop paying for journal A-H as a bundle with X. We are willing to subscribe to A-H only on a per-use basis, and if you charge too high of a price for any of these journals, which get passed on the our faculty, they’re going to  think twice about using it.”

Two, the obstacles are not insurmountable. Librarians will find something to do with their time (especially if the budget devolves back to them after the experiment has run its course). A separate budget can be set aside for students — in fact, more favorable, student-discounted prices can be gotten from the publishers who have shown themselves willing to price discriminate in order to generate more sales. Librarians can still sign long-term contracts, but they have to pay more attention to how much use and utility they get for what they’ve bought. Just-in-case acquisitions is going to be less defensible. Librarians will have to cooperate with other libraries much more since their collections, being more patron-driven, will be less comprehensive than before. However, comprehensiveness is something to be sought at on a higher level than that of a library since striving for a comprehensive collection at each and every library implies magnitude in duplications that is simply too expensive. In any case, the profession is already moving in the direction of more coordination and integration; this will simply push them further along that path.

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