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Paying by the Pound for Journals

December 2, 2010

The library at Albany Molecular Research, Inc. thought its days of buying its chemistry journals in print were over. Then the publisher of a dozen of them raised the price of digital access to certain journals by as much as 183 percent.

Now, the institution is considering switching back to print subscriptions for some of the titles published by the American Chemical Society — and perhaps nixing several of the journals from its library shelves altogether.

“It’s a step backward,” says Wendy Quinn-Decatur, an associate librarian there. “Our researchers may no longer be able to sit at their desks and download the articles they need — they’ll have to go to the library. And we have researchers all over the world. They’ll have to send us citations and we’ll have to photocopy the journals and send PDFs to them.”

The Albany research company is not alone in its objection to projected rate increases from the American Chemical Society, or ACS, which publishes 38 chemistry journals, including some of the most prestigious in the field. The nonprofit Southwest Research Institute, which has strong ties to the nearby University of Texas at San Antonio but has a corporate subscription to ACS because it is not formally part of any university, saw the projected charges for some of the most popular ACS journals rise by 24 and 38 percent.

The librarians at those institutions suspect that the sudden increases have to do with a relatively new digital pricing model called “value-based pricing.” Under the model, the society charges corporate and government subscribers to each journal according to how many times their researchers download articles from that journal. The idea is to tie price more closely to value. The more useful the journal is to an institution (as measured by article downloads), the more the institution will have to pay for that journal. Digital subscriptions account for around 95 percent of all ACS journal subscriptions.

“[T]his new methodology reflects the tradition of peer-review excellence and value delivered by the world’s leading journals in chemistry and the related sciences,” the American Chemical Society wrote in an announcement on its website prior to instituting the new system in 2008. The society noted that the value-based model is unique to digital publishing, which produces more precise metrics for usefulness.

The value-based pricing model primarily affects corporate and government libraries. “Historical usage” is listed as a factor in pricing for academic subscribers (along with size and Carnegie classification), but ACS officials say the new model has a greater pull on subscription rates for non-academic customers.

Sally Krash, a librarian at the Southwest Research Institute, says she thinks this puts an undue burden on corporate subscribers — especially institutions such as Southwest, which are nonprofit and in no better position to pay higher rates than university libraries are.

“If they want to alienate their corporate librarians, they’re doing a good job of it,” she says, adding that her library plans to drop six ACS journals from its shelves — the ones being used the least, and whose rates remained accordingly flat.

Krash says that when she told her ACS account liaison that the institute might not be able to afford to continue subscribing under the new pricing model, the liaison recommended that Krash advise her researchers to download fewer articles. “That’s ridiculous,” she says, adding: "We're being penalized for increasing usage of electronic journals."

One academic institution, Benedictine University, reported a whopping 1,861 percent price jump for 2011. Benedictine subscribes through a statewide consortium of colleges and universities, which ACS says is responsible for apportioning licensing fees on its own. Still, Benedictine librarian Ariel Neff says that on Wednesday, after she had sent a message about the increase to a popular chemistry listerv (and after Inside Higher Ed had begun this inquiry), an ACS sales representative contacted the university to set a meeting to talk about easing the price spike.

Glenn Ruskin, a spokesman for the American Chemical Society, says that while the value-based pricing system does create more variability in pricing for individual customers and urged them and any other subscribers who saw undue increases to reach out to their sales liaisons — and, failing that, ACS management. Another ACS official said Albany and Southwest were most likely outliers. (This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

Ruskin says the notion that the society is trying to control price increases for academic institutions by using value-based pricing to handicap their corporate and government subscribers — as Krash suggested — is misguided.

“Each subscriber is going to have variability, and it’s hard to say why one particular subscriber rate was higher than another,” Ruskin says. Nevertheless, he says he is confident that if such institutions bring their grievances to ACS, something can be worked out.

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