When Not Saying 'No' Is Negligence

Why do we stay in abusive relationships with publishers? 

November 14, 2013

Though in some realms of popular culture, librarians are depicted as scary gatekeepers who are all about rules and punishments, in reality we are so addicted to serving our communities that we find it difficult to ever say “no” out loud. We say it a lot, but very quietly or through the magic of entropy. Oh well, guess we won’t be buying very many books this year. We’ll cancel that oddball journal by a small society because only a few people need it. We won’t get that thing that isn’t part of a big subscription package, and when someone asks why, we’ll say the budget made us do it. But that’s not true.

Many of us have a smaller budget than we had, and that does mean trimming costs. Others have a flat budget, and that also means cutting something because each of the things we acquire this year cost more than they did last year.  But the real reason we aren’t getting those things is that our most expensive subscription packages cost far more than they used to and we have somehow come to believe they are too big to fail. We feel forced to take $10,000 worth of purchases from one area so that we can cover the increase in a bundle of journals published by, say, SAGE, simply because they bought out another publisher and we have to pay for that newly-acquired content, even though it's stuff we don't want.

That one journal we cancel because only a few people use it? That use outnumbers the vast percentage of journals in any of our big packages that get no use at all, ever.

The last time we had to deal with a giant increase like this, we asked what it would cost to get just the journals we wanted rather than the whole bundle. We were quoted a much higher price than the entire bundle, a convoluted yet totally clear statement equivalent to an earthy expression that doesn’t belong in this family publication. Goliath, Inc. didn’t want our contract badly enough that we had any leverage, or at least, that’s how it felt. What's even stranger is that this price was negotiated by a consortium. I’m sure those who handled the negotiation did their best. I blame the publisher, who apparently was comfortable telling several states in the upper Midwest to drop dead. And I blame us, for allowing ourselves to continue in an abusive relationship.

We’re on the horns of a dilemma. So much of our budget is invested in a package that is incredibly important to several departments who became addicted to it when the publisher let us in on a deal that was too good to be true (but also too good to turn down). Now these departments tell us they can’t manage without it, and I believe them. Research publications are largely a non-substitutable good. Pulling the plug would be incredibly painful. So we pull the plug on other things, instead.

Here’s a slightly different dilemma. Like many smaller schools, we have several departments with “and” in their names.  They are two disciplines that have enough in common that they can coexist and benefit by being one fairly large department rather than two smaller department. But we can't always afford to support both halves equally. In one of these cases, we subscribe to a pricey database that appeals to half of the department. We stared subscribing to it decades ago when it was printed on paper. When other part of the department asked for a package their society publishes, we told them we couldn’t afford it. Why couldn’t we afford it? Because the other half of the “and” had gotten there first.

This is not fair. In the case of the folks who got their first, the database we pay a lot for is not available at all to individuals. Actually, it might be – but I’m quite sure none of our faculty could the lowest individual price of $12,000 annually. So we can’t say “well, sorry, we can’t afford it. Guess you’ll have to pay for your own access." They can’t. Their own society has decided their business model depends on library subscriptions. The folks in the other half of the department are asking for journals, and we can buy one article at a time for them. They don’t like it, and they think it’s discouraging for their students, and they’re right – it is. But it’s awfully hard to tell their colleagues we're turning off a tool that's essential for their research.

An egregious example recently in the news (subscription required) concerns a publisher redefining the meaning of the word "library." The Harvard Business Review long ago decided that libraries should only provide materials for research. Supporting the curriculum is not allowed. Harvard Business Review articles in our databases had language telling students to stop reading if their teacher told them to read it. In that case, an extra fee is required. Since nobody paid much attention to that prohibition, EBSCO, who makes the content available to librareis, has disabled printing and saving. HBR  has told institutions they must pay for classroom access to the most popular articles – at a cost of as much as an additional $200,000 per year, though most institutions would only pay around $10,000 annually. That's so students can read 500 articles that the library already pays for on behalf of the community. 

Now this one I can say “no” to without blinking. No way. No how - unless, as Kevin Smith has suggested, we simply paid an equivalent amount less for the library version. We never agreed that our faculty couldn't tell their students to read an article that the library subscribes to. EBSCO, the database vendor did. 

Some librarians have had enough and are saying no, and that’s a lesson we all should heed. Increasing library budgets, even if it were an option, is not the solution. At what point is not saying “no” a dereliction of duty? 


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