For some time, librarians have questioned the wisdom of agreeing to confidentiality agreements when signing expensive subscription licenses, but many publishers seem to think they’re essential to their business practices. In 2009, Elsevier even went to court to try and stop scholars finding out what a public universities was spending on Science Direct using Washingon state's open records law. The publisher’s argument that prices were a trade secret, and such secrecy benefited libraries failed to impress the judge, who dismissed their lawsuit with prejudice. Finally we’re seeing the fruits of FOIAs in a new article recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Though it’s not open access yet, there’s coverage in The Guardian and supplementary tables are freely accessible.) The study demonstrates two things: first, non-profit publishers don’t gouge libraries nearly as much as for-profit publishers do (though bear in mind that a great many non-profit scholarly organizations outsource their publishing to for-profit giants and are therefore part of the problem). And second, the differences in pricing among schools are huge and difficult to justify. Are some librarians just better at negotiating? Are some reps soft touches? What factors are used in making these calculations?
In any case, it’s high time these secret contracts were disinfected with a little sunshine. I’m grateful to the economists who spent years fighting to bring them to light. I’m also grateful to Timothy Gowers who did some sleuthing and analysis of his own last spring. While I’m at it, hurrah for FOIA laws!
While all this has been going on, academic libraries were signing new rounds of big deals – this time for ebooks. Last month, many libraries were hit with enormous price hikes in these big packages. Evidently, the revenue stream that publishers anticipated weren’t materializing through the way these deals were structured and the ways library users were responding. (Incidentally, though ebook prices for public libraries have been in the news, it’s a different market; what academic libraries are seeing looks more like databases for journal articles, only with more end-user hassle and a different kind of revenue structure for publishers, so far as I can tell.) Libraries that opted for ebooks over print weren’t generating enough business to keep publishers satisfied. Once again, non-profit publishers – university presses in this case – appear to be offering fairer deals to libraries on the whole.
The only question in my mind is why libraries are so eager to repeat the mistakes of the past, this time with ebooks. Though we have decided the massive collection building of the pre-Internet era has left us holding a very expensive bag - one that causes a lot of consternation when print collections are removed from the open stacks to make space for other things – the same uncritical belief that we should get as much stuff as we possibly can with our dollars has led to padding out big deal packages with junk and feeding a hungry productivity beast. Bigger isn’t better. Opting for bigger crowds out the small and unprofitable in favor of lots of mass–produced corporate-controlled stuff.
Here’s the deal: libraries must not only embrace the open access movement, but must support a non-profit model for scholarly publishing. From what we’ve seen so far, the same publishers who demand that their subscription prices be secret are gearing up to own open access by making author-side fees a new revenue stream. There are no doubt cases where author fees make sense, particularly in sciences which have long supported publication fees through grant funding, but letting the corporations who got us in this mess keep their profits while extracting wealth from a different part of the process is not the solution.