The Elephant in the Room

Fred Friend, Honorary Director Scholarly Communication UCL, wrote in liblicense:

FF: “The phrase “the elephant in the room” was used by a librarian at a recent UK meeting to describe the big issues we were not allowed to discuss about how the current economic crisis is affecting scholarly communication. Representatives of all stakeholder groups present – including publishers – agreed that the economic crisis was hitting them badly, with cost-cutting happening across the board and hopes for growth put on hold. The curious feature of the conversation was that nobody present was able to discuss the one topic which could get us through the crisis and prevent the journals market collapsing, viz. the pricing structure for journal “big deals”. Pricing can only be discussed in one-to-one meetings between suppliers and purchasers. It would be easy to blame legislators for anti-trust legislation and the dominance of contract law, but the legal web within which publishing is entwined is of our own making – and I include the academic community in that statement.

“The importance of this failure to discuss structural and pricing issues is that the dominance of library budgets by “big deal” expenditure has the potential to bring the journal publishing industry to its knees in the same way as sub-prime mortgages did for the banking industry. It will only take a few cancellations of “big deals” by major institutions to make investors nervous about the future of companies heavily dependent upon such deals, and a domino effect could follow. We may be sure that there will be no government bail-out of the journal publishing industry. This scenario would not be good for any of the current stakeholders. The big journal publishing companies have failed to respond positively to the ICOLC initiative on the economic crisis, and the inability to discuss structural and pricing issues in a collaborative way is preventing solutions which have been of benefit in other sectors of the economy. For example, heavily-discounted pricing (by which I do not mean 1%) could ease the burden upon library budgets for one or two years until the overall economic situation improved. No publisher will want to be the first to discuss such solutions, but equallly no publisher will want to be the first to feel the effects of cancellations of its ‘big deals’.”

The elephant in the room is not the prospect of journal subscription cancellations, because as long as researchers need access to peer-reviewed journals, and as long as peer-reviewed journals are accessible only via subscriptions, subscriptions will remain viable, and institutions will just have to keep paying for whatever fraction they can afford of them.

The elephant in the room is Open Access (OA) self-archiving of journal articles by the “Slumbering Giant” — the universal provider of all the content of the planet’s 25,000 peer-reviewed journals: the planet’s 10,000 universities and research institutions.

As soon as the Slumbering Giant awakes to the fact that OA is fully within its reach — all it has to do is to mandate it — all the fuss about journal affordability, institutional serials crises, and publisher overpricing will fade, for researchers will have access to all refereed research, not just the fraction of it to which their institutions can afford to subscribe today.

And then, maybe, institutions will start canceling, their users’ needs no longer being inelastic, thanks to the OA mandates.

And then publishers will cut costs, lower prices, and eventually make a transition to OA publishing, recovering the costs of peer review from institutional publication fees, paid out of a fraction of institutions’ windfall subscription cancellation savings.

That’s the real elephant in the room, if you like. But as long as we persist in imagining instead that it’s something to do with journal pricing, “Big Deals,” and the need for pricing reform, we will not only fail to notice the elephant, we will fail to grasp its tail, which is fully within our reach. Instead, we will, like the drunk and the lamp-post, keep fumbling where the elephant isn’t (or, like the blind men and the elephant, fail to grasp what it is)!

Ganesh Loxodont