For most scholarly journals, the transition away from the print format and to an exclusive reliance on the electronic version seems all but inevitable, driven by user preferences for electronic journals and concerns about collecting the same information in two formats. But this shift away from print, in the absence of strategic planning by a higher proportion of libraries and publishers, may endanger the viability of certain journals and even the journal literature more broadly -- while not even reducing costs in the ways that have long been assumed.
Although the opportunities before us are significant, a smooth transition away from print and to electronic versions of journals requires concerted action, most of it individually by libraries and publishers.
In reaching this conclusion, we rely largely on a series of studies, of both publishers and libraries, in which we examined some of the incentives for a transition and some of the opportunities and challenges that present themselves. Complete findings of our library study, on which we partnered with Don King and Ann Okerson, were published as The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals.  We also recently completed a study of the operations of 10 journal publishers, in conjunction with Mary Waltham, an independent publishing consultant.
Taken together, these studies suggest that an electronic-only environment would be more cost-effective than print-only for most journals, with cost savings for both libraries and publishers. But this systemwide perspective must also be balanced against a more textured examination of libraries and publishers.
On the publisher side, the transition to online journals has been facilitated by some of the largest publishers, commercial and nonprofit. These publishers have already invested in and embraced a dual-format mode of publishing; they have diversified their revenue streams with separately identifiable income from both print and now increasingly electronic formats. Although the decreasing number of print subscriptions may have a negative impact on revenues, these publishers’ pricing has evolved alongside the economies of online only delivery to mitigate the effects of print cancellations on the bottom line.
The trend has been to adopt value-based pricing that recognizes the convenience of a single license serving an entire campus (rather than multiple subscriptions), with price varying by institutional size, intensity of research activity, and/or number of online users. By “flipping” their pricing to be driven primarily by the electronic version, with print effectively an add-on, these publishers have been able to manage the inevitable decline of their print business without sacrificing net earnings. They are today largely agnostic to format and, when faced with price complaints, are now positioned to recommend that libraries consider canceling their print subscriptions in favor of electronic-only access.
Other journal publishers, especially smaller nonprofit scholarly societies in the humanities and social sciences and some university presses, are only beginning to make this transition. Even when they publish electronic versions in addition to print, these publishers have generally been slower to reconceive their business models to accommodate a dual-format environment that might rapidly become electronic-only. Their business models depend on revenues received from print, in some cases with significant contributions from advertising, and are often unable to accommodate significant print cancellations in favor of electronic access.
Until recently, this has perhaps not been unreasonable, as demand for electronic journals has been slower to build in the humanities and some social science disciplines. But the business models of these publishers are now not sufficiently durable to sustain the journals business in the event that libraries move aggressively away from the print format.
Many American academic libraries have sought to provide journals in both print and electronic formats for the past 5 to 10 years. The advantages of the electronic format have been clear, so these were licensed as rapidly as possible, but it has taken time for some faculty members to grow comfortable with an exclusive dependence on the electronic format. In addition, librarians were concerned about the absence of an acceptable electronic-archiving solution, given that that their cancellation of print editions would prevent higher education from depending on print as the archival format.
In the past year or two, the movement away from print by users in higher education has expanded and accelerated. No longer is widespread migration away from print restricted to early adopters like Drexel and Suffolk Universities; it has become the norm at a broad range of academic institutions, from liberal arts colleges to the largest research universities. Ongoing budget shortfalls in academe have probably been the underlying motivation. The strategic pricing models offered by some of the largest publishers, which offer a price reduction for the cancellation of print, have provided a financial incentive for libraries to contemplate completing the transition.
Faced with resource constraints, librarians have been required to make hard choices, electing not to purchase the print version but only to license electronic access to many journals -- a step more easily made in light of growing faculty acceptance of the electronic format. Consequently, especially in the sciences, but increasingly even in the humanities, library demand for print has begun to fall. As demand for print journals continues to decline and economies of scale of print collections are lost, there is likely to be a tipping point at which continued collecting of print no longer makes sense and libraries begin to rely only upon journals that are available electronically.
As this tipping point approaches, at unknown speed, libraries and publishers need to evaluate how they can best manage it. We offer several specific recommendations.
- First, for those publishers that have not yet developed a strategy for an electronic-only journals environment and the transition to it, the future is now. Today’s dual-format system can only be managed effectively with a rigorous accounting of the costs and revenues of print and electronic and how these break down by format. Because some costs incurred irrespective of format are difficult to allocate, this accounting is complicated. It is also, however, critical, allowing publishers to understand the performance of each format as currently priced and, as a result, to project how the transition to an electronic-only environment would affect them. Publishers that do not immediately undertake these analyses and, if necessary, adjust their business models accordingly, may suffer dramatically as the transition accelerates and libraries reach a tipping point.
- Second, in this transition, libraries and higher education more broadly should consider how they can support the publishers that are faced with a difficult transition. A disconcerting number of nonprofit publishers, especially scholarly societies and university presses that have the greatest presence in the humanities and social sciences fields, have a particularly complicated transition to make. The university presses and scholarly societies have been traditionally strong allies of academic libraries. They may have priced their electronic journals generously (and unrealistically). Consequently, a business model revamped to accommodate the transition may often result in a significant price increase for the electronic format. In cases where price increases are not predatory but rather adjustments for earlier unrealistic prices, libraries should act with empathy. If libraries cancel journals based on large percentage price increases (even when, measured in dollars, the increases are trivial), they may unintentionally punish lower-price publishers struggling to make the transition as efficiently as possible.
- Third, this same set of publishers is particularly vulnerable, because their strategic planning must take place in the absence of the working capital and the economies of scale on which larger publishers have relied. As a result, some humanities journals published by small societies are not yet even available electronically. The community has a need for collaborative solutions like Project Muse or HighWire, (initiatives that provide the infrastructure to create and distribute electronic journals) for the scholarly societies that publish the smaller journals in the humanities and social sciences. But if such solutions are not developed or cannot succeed in relatively short order on a broader scale, the alternative may be the replacement of many of these journals with blogs, repositories, or other less formal distribution models.
- Fourth, although libraries today face difficult questions about whether and when to proceed with electronic-only access to traditionally print journals, they should try to manage this transition strategically and, in doing so, deserve support from all members of the higher education community. It has been unusual thus far for libraries to undertake a strategic, all-encompassing format review process, since it is often far more politically palatable to cancel print versions as a tactical retreat in the face of budgetary pressures. But a chaotic retreat from print will almost certainly not allow libraries to realize the maximum potential cost savings, whereas a managed strategic format review can permit far more effective planning and cost savings.
Beyond a focus on local costs and benefits, there are a number of broader issues that many libraries will want to consider in such a strategic format review. The widespread migration from print to electronic seems likely to eliminate library ownership of new accessions, with licensing taking the place of purchase. In cases where ownership led to certain expectations or practices, these will have to be rethought in a licensing-only environment.
From our perspective, the safeguarding of materials for future generations is among the most pressing practices deserving reconsideration. Questions about the necessity of developing or deploying electronic archiving solutions, and the adequacy of the existing solutions, deserve serious consideration by all libraries contemplating a migration away from print resources. In addition, the transition to electronic journals begins to raise questions about how to ensure the preservation of existing print collections. Many observers have concluded that a paper repository framework is the optimal solution, but although individual repositories have been created at the University of California, the Five Colleges, and elsewhere, the organizational work to develop a comprehensive framework for them has yet to begin.
The implications both of licensing on archiving and of the future of existing print collections are addressable as part of any library’s strategic planning for the transition to an electronic-only environment -- but all too often are being forgotten under the pressure of the budgetary axe.
These challenges appear to us to be some of the most urgent facing libraries and publishers in the nearly inevitable transition to an electronic-only journals environment. Both libraries and publishers should proceed under the assumption that the transition may take place fairly rapidly, as either side may reach a tipping point when it is no longer cost-effective to publish or purchase any print versions. It is not impossible for this transition to occur gracefully, but to do so will require the concerted efforts of individual libraries and individual publishers.
Eileen Gifford Fenton is executive director of Portico, whose mission is to preserve scholarly literature published in electronic form and to ensure that these materials remain accessible. Portico  was launched by JSTOR and is being incubated by Ithaka, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Roger C. Schonfeld is coordinator of research for Ithaka, a nonprofit organization formed to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of academia. He is the author of JSTOR: A History (Princeton University Press, 2003).Â