UB breaks with publisher

Publisert:23. januar 2007Oppdatert:2. oktober 2013, 09:12

Norway’s biggest university libraries have broken off negotiations with Blackwell Publishing. This means that researchers, students and employees will lose electronic access to 778 journals. As a substitute, they will be offered free paper versions through inter-library loan.

The point of departure for the negotiations was that the Bergen University Library (UB), together with other Norwegian university libraries, wanted to convert from traditional printed-journal subscriptions to electronic versions.

‘It has been a very expensive reform, but we have gone into this with our eyes open. Electronic libraries are the only way to go,’ explains UB Director, Kari Garnes. ‘The problem is that we cannot enter into agreements in which we see ourselves being deprived outright of our financial control.’ She tells us of rather dramatic developments in recent years, in which the demands from the publishing giants are becoming steadily more unreasonable: 

  • The libraries cannot choose which journals they wish to subscribe to; instead they are forced to take big packages, and thus journals that in principle they do not wish to pay for.
  • Nor is it possible for the libraries to terminate subscriptions in the course of the contract period.  
  • The publishers fix their prices on the basis of how many subscriptions the institution has had, and the libraries must thereby pay for subscriptions that individual departments or research centres have had on the side.
  • In addition, a high annual price rise in the contractual period is being demanded, in Blackwell’s case 7 per cent.  
  • The publishing houses concede a discount for transition to pure electronic subscriptions, but this is much lower than what the publishers actually save. 

‘The discount is normally around 10 per cent, but on top of that we have VAT, in Norway’s case 25 per cent’, explains the head of the Acquisitions Division at UB, Ole Gunnar Evensen.

Can’t afford books
Moreover, Blackwell was only willing to concede the much lower discount of 5 per cent. That made an already expensive subscription scheme so costly that the libraries cannot afford it. Ironically enough, the libraries will soon be unable to buy books.

‘Even today, the costs of journal subscription are eating into the book-buying budget. In subjects such as medicine’, says Evensen, ‘subscription accounts for 97-98 per cent of the budget.’ Averaged over the faculties, the proportion is smaller, around 75 per cent, but it is growing.
 
‘Prices have risen too fast for us to keep up, unless we want to cut back drastically in other areas,’ says Director Garnes.

Doubled its revenues in five years
Breaking off the negotiations altogether and cancelling the agreement on electronic journals is a drastic step, but it has been done before. In 2003, for example, the prestigious Cornell University broke off negotiations with the biggest publisher, the Dutch company Reed Elsevier. The following year, after hard negotiations, Johns Hopkins, Harvard and all the institutions in the University of California system pared their subscriptions down to the bare minimum.

Several American researchers then protested volubly against the pressure from the publishers, pointing to the paradox that they are supplying articles and quality control to the journals for free, and giving the journals legitimacy and status by citing them, at the same time as they have to pay steadily more money to be allowed to read them. For the publishing houses it is good business: according to The Harvard Gazette, between 1999 and 2004 Elsevier doubled its revenues in the fields of natural science, technology and medicine, to a total of USD 2.33 billion.

‘This is a paradox. Researchers who choose to publish in these journals give up their rights to their material, and have to pay through the nose to get it back,’ Garnes notes. ‘At the same time, the publishers are becoming fewer and bigger, and taking more and more profit.’

United negotiation front
In recent years, negotiations with the publishers have become ever-tougher. Traditional independent journals have outsourced their distribution to big commercial players and several small and medium publishers have merged or been bought up by the giants. Elsevier, Springer and of course Blackwell are among the handful of big hitters than now dominate the market completely, and who are working first and foremost to further their own commercial interests. A survey performed by the American ‘Association of Research Libraries’ in 2001 found that the subscription price of academic journals had risen by 215 per cent over the last 15 years, while the price of academic books had increased by only 68 per cent. In the same period the consumer price index had risen by 62 per cent.

In order to better meet the hard negotiating front from the publishing industry, therefore, the biggest university libraries have appointed a joint licensing committee, on behalf of which the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority is negotiating. In most cases this has resulted in a deal, but in Blackwell’s case negotiations came to a halt.

‘We are not very happy with the other agreements either, we think they are too expensive as well. But Blackwell was more obstinate on matters of principle than the others,’ emphasises Ms Garnes. ‘For example, they based their pricing on subscriptions from other entities within the University of Bergen, in addition to UB’s subscriptions. It was an important matter of principle for us not to accept that, and the other publishers backed down on that point.’

Offers free inter-library loans
The University of Bergen subscribes to almost 10,000 journals in all, and many of the Blackwell journals are by no means among the most-read. According to Ms Garnes, however, many researchers and students will notice the difference.

‘Last year, the 20 most-read journals from Blackwell were downloaded at least 500 times each,’ she says, ‘and Blackwell journals cover all the fields.’

The university libraries are now aiming to obtain paper editions of all these journals, and will offer free inter-library loans. This means a lot of extra work for the librarians. 

‘We must borrow them from other libraries and make copies, it will be an awful job to get hold of all of them. There may be long waits and problems keeping deadlines, but we will do our best to track them down,’ says Ms Garnes.

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