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No Easy Answer For Library Budgets

Complexity of journals’ pricing adds to tension between publishers and customers

by Lila Guterman
November 8, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 46

Credit: iStock
Rising prices and shrinking funds have strained library budgets.
Interior of a library.
Credit: iStock
Rising prices and shrinking funds have strained library budgets.

“Not sustainable.”

The phrase comes up again and again in conversation with academic librarians about the price of science journals.

A profound mismatch exists, librarians say, between science journal prices and university library budgets. The recent economic recession only worsened the problem, flattening library budgets while the costs of scientific publications continued to rise. Since electronic journals became the norm in recent years, journal pricing has grown more complicated, which contributes to the difficulty libraries have in managing their needs versus their budgets.

“Many libraries like Penn’s see annual budget increases of 3 to 4% at most,” says Judith Currano, the head of the chemistry library at the University of Pennsylvania. But chemistry journal prices rise on average 5 to 8% every year, she says. “An 8% increase is not reasonable these days. Anyone who says that it is, isn’t aware of the true nature of university budgeting.”

The serials crisis has gone on for decades: In 1989, an American Library Association newsletter referred to it as “perhaps the greatest concern among academic libraries today.” In recent years, researchers have threatened boycotts of various commercial publishers including Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group, citing their high prices and steep rate increases.

In April, Harvard University’s Faculty Advisory Council published an open letter that said, “Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.”

Most recently, some librarians have turned their attention to the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. The discussions began after a librarian blogged in September about her decision to cancel subscriptions to ACS journals.

Jenica P. Rogers, director of libraries at the State University of New York, Potsdam, said the price of ACS’s all-journals electronic licensing package would have consumed more than 10% of her 2013 acquisitions budget. It was, she said, outside the range of what her small university could afford.

Her blog posting received more than 100 responses in comments, Listserv postings, and blog posts by other librarians. In October, Rogers posted on her blog that other librarians had told her they intend to cancel as well. ACS says it has seen no uptick in cancellations in recent years.

ACS officials say they are sympathetic and aware of the library crisis but are not the cause of it. “Our price per article and price per published page are consistently below other publishers,” says Brian Crawford, president of the ACS Publications Division. “We strive to deliver higher-quality electronic content at prices … that compare favorably to other scientific publishers.”

Concerns about prices of chemistry journals have simmered over the years, and not surprisingly: Chemistry is the most expensive discipline among the sciences, according to a survey of journal prices that Library Journal undertakes every year.

ACS’s price increases in recent years, Crawford says, have been “well within scientific publishing industry norms.” For its all-journals package, the increases in both 2010 and 2011 were 7%; in 2012, the increase was 6%; and in 2013, it will be 5%—except for smaller academic institutions and community colleges, which will see no price increase. These price increases include the seven new journals ACS has introduced since 2010. However, customers seeking relief had the option to decline the new titles and, as a result, would have seen smaller increases of 5% in 2010 and 2011, and 4% in 2012. No new-title increment was added to the 2013 subscription fees.

Explaining the yearly increases, Crawford says, “Manuscript submissions for consideration continue to rise at double-digit rates, and our published article output increases upward of 5% annually, with concomitant costs.”

Over a similar time frame, the year-on-year price increase of the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has averaged 6%, according to Stephen Hawthorne, executive director of sales, marketing, and strategic partnerships.

The complaints about ACS may have become louder since 2008, when the society changed its pricing model to reflect electronic journal usage patterns instead of charging flat fees. (Subscribers who choose print journals still pay flat fees.) ACS developed its Value-Based Pricing model, Crawford says, in close consultation with librarians. Some institutions’ subscription rates decreased as a result; others went up.

The model groups schools for pricing primarily on the basis of levels established in the Carnegie Classification, which sorts colleges and universities according to the degrees they grant and the extent of their research efforts. Within the Carnegie-defined tiers, ACS created sub-tiers based on historical downloads of ACS journal articles, student enrollment, and the number of degrees granted in chemistry. ACS adds that it does not adjust prices based on usage every year, in order to prevent volatility in any library’s pricing, and that it typically gives libraries a year’s notice when their usage requires them to move between sub-tiers.

Institutions in each sub-tier pay a set price, regardless of an institution’s or state’s budget, but with adjustments made for participation in large consortia and with discounts for purchasing multiple titles.

RSC, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics also use tiered pricing, often based on similar institutional characteristics. Elsevier has begun piloting tiered pricing but only for customers that do not subscribe to package deals. John Wiley & Sons did not respond to C&EN’s request for information, but its online price list includes some journals with pricing divided into three tiers and others with flat fees.

“We intend that schools with like characteristics should pay like amounts,” ACS’s Crawford says.

Librarians support that idea. C&EN interviewed 17 academic librarians representing institutions large and small, public and private, research heavy and undergraduate only. Everyone agrees that fairness in pricing is a worthy goal.

“ACS is working to standardize their pricing model,” SUNY Potsdam’s Rogers says. “That is something I respect.”

But the details haven’t worked out to everyone’s liking. Some small colleges, including SUNY Potsdam, say the pricing model puts ACS’s publications out of reach. As Bonnie J. M. Swoger, science and technology librarian at another small SUNY campus, Geneseo, puts it: “A local research university, when you do the math, they’re paying about a buck a download. When you do the math for us, we pay about $10 per download.” Her library downscaled in 2012 from ACS’s all-journals package to its Academic Core+ package of 15 journals.

ACS notes that the SUNY schools transitioned this year out of a consortial agreement, negotiated through the New York State Higher Education Initiative, into a contract just for SUNY. The result, Crawford says, was that fees for some campuses increased while those of others stayed the same or even decreased. Most SUNY campuses continued subscribing to ACS journals.

A. Ben Wagner, sciences librarian at SUNY Buffalo, the largest of the campuses, says large institutions also struggle with increases in science journal prices. “Yes, we have more money,” he acknowledges. “But we also have to cover the waterfront. We have a law school. We have a medical school. We have a music library. We offer practically everything except agriculture. We have more money, but we have to make it stretch.”

Ariel Neff is a librarian who has seen the pricing problems from multiple perspectives: Since February, she has been the chemistry librarian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; previously, she worked at Benedictine University, a small college in Illinois. There, she saw a proposed price increase of 1,800% for 2011 compared with 2010, she says.

For 2010, the consortium Benedictine participates in had assessed the school “an extraordinarily low fee” of $1,500 for 34 journals, Crawford says. Because of a shift in how Benedictine’s consortium allots fees to align with ACS’s new pricing model, Benedictine’s price for 2011 would have soared. But ACS sales staff worked with the school to institute smaller price increases over five years. As part of the five-year stepwise increase in Benedictine’s fees, the school’s 2012–13 increase will be 70%.

Smoothing the transition to value-based pricing—by taking such steps as spreading changes over several years—is one of ACS’s guiding principles, Crawford says.

And not everyone complains about the new prices: Franklin & Marshall College, in Pennsylvania, will see its 2013 fees decrease. Christina McCawley, serials and acquisitions librarian at West Chester University, also in Pennsylvania, says that her library’s all-journals ACS subscription will go down in 2013 by $10,000, to roughly $35,000.

Even before receiving the 2013 proposal, McCawley says, “I have never felt that ACS was a particular problem.”

Many librarians say the increasing prices of science and technology journals would be difficult to sustain even with strong budgets. But libraries’ budgets have been anything but strong.

Library Journal reports that a survey of 395 predominantly academic libraries by EBSCO, a company that provides databases to libraries, found that more than two-thirds experienced flat or decreasing budgets in 2012, and nearly three-quarters expected flat or declining budgets in 2013.

Kelly Jacobsma, the director of libraries at Hope College, in Michigan, says her acquisitions budget has decreased 5.7% over the past five years. At California Institute of Technology, the budget has remained flat for six years, says Dana Roth, the school’s chemistry librarian: “We have to look around and find things to cut.”

“It’s entirely possible to see your acquisitions budget lose 15% purchasing power in a single year,” says Wagner of SUNY Buffalo. “The crisis is real.”

Librarians have tried to avoid canceling subscriptions by reducing book purchases, stopping the binding of print journals, and cutting student staffing. The University of California, Berkeley, has 90 fewer full-time library employees than it did five years ago, bringing its staff size to 321, says Bernie Hurley, who is responsible for the library collections budget.

For the past five years, he says, the UC system, which negotiates with ACS as a consortium, has seen a 6% increase per year in journal fees on average. By contrast, Berkeley has not seen an increase in its collections budget since 2001; other UC campuses have had library budgets cut.

“ACS products are excellent,” Hurley says. “That’s not the issue.”

Every library contacted by C&EN has had to pare subscriptions in recent years. For Rogers at SUNY Potsdam, that meant ACS titles. Many institutions have cut other publishers’ offerings. At Trinity Washington University, a 2,700-student institution in Washington, D.C., Jacob Berg, the director of library services, stopped subscribing to Nature in 2011. It was taking up 15% of the university’s serials budget, he says.

However, of the science journal publishers contacted by C&EN, none says it has seen a recent increase in cancellations.

Librarians decide what to cancel, they tell C&EN, by analyzing their faculty’s and students’ needs, the annual cost of journals, and the cost per download for each title.

At UW Madison, the lists of serials cancellations in 2011 and 2012 run to hundreds of titles.

A “real tragedy,” says SUNY Buffalo’s Wagner, hides beneath cancellations: Librarians struggle to add new journals and usually can’t.

“It’s very challenging to add subscriptions to new science titles,” he says. “You’d have to cancel existing journals that have a proven track record.” As a result, SUNY Buffalo has been unable in recent years to add many of the new titles from RSC or from the Nature Publishing Group. For example, the campus does not subscribe to Nature Chemistry or Nature Climate Change.

Many librarians contacted by C&EN also expressed frustration at what they see as ACS’s lack of transparency about pricing. Although ACS publishes its flat-price fees for print journals on its website, the tiered pricing for electronic journals is not available online.

Some society publishers, including the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society, do publish tiered institutional pricing online. Others provide partial information. RSC, for example, posts individual title costs but not package pricing. A commercial publisher, the Nature Publishing Group, allows librarians to enter on its website their institutions’ student body size, and it will calculate a licensing price—but only for individual titles, not including package discounts. Elsevier does not make its package pricing available publicly.


Caltech’s Roth expresses concern about ACS. “I don’t think they’re doing a good job of educating people,” he says about pricing models and reasons for yearly increases in subscription prices. ACS answers specific queries about pricing, he says, with general reasons to subscribe: “They keep talking about how good they are and how much stuff there is. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of detail we need.”

Crawford responds that the price tiers and arrangements with consortia are too complex to lay out in simple grids or formulas.

Several librarians interviewed by C&EN, including Roth, say ACS journals offer good value. “I look at cost per use, cost per page, cost per article, or cost per article per impact factor,” he says. “ACS is probably 10 times better than the commercial publishers.”

An online database of journal prices maintained by economists Ted Bergstrom of UC Santa Barbara and R. Preston McAfee of Google grades journals on price per article and price per citation. Nearly all ACS journals rank better than average in chemistry and related fields.

About communication, Crawford adds, “We are open to hearing more from our library customers about the additional transparency about our electronic pricing that they would find useful in their decision making.”

In an open letter posted in early October at the ACS Publications website and on librarian Listservs, Brandon A. Nordin, ACS vice president of sales and marketing, responds to criticism of ACS communication with librarians: “We value this partnership, and we apologize for our recent failure to make clear the importance we place on our dialogue with libraries and scholarly communications departments.”

ACS has a formal route to hear librarians’ concerns: twice-yearly meetings with its Customer Advisory Panel, a group of librarians from academe, government, and industry.

Two academic members of the panel, Pamela Snelson, college librarian at Franklin & Marshall College, and Andrew White, interim dean and director of libraries at SUNY Stony Brook, say the ACS Publications Division staff has been open to constructive feedback and hard questions. ACS held a conference call with members of the panel in October, White notes, to discuss the pricing controversy—an indication, he says, of the importance to ACS of hearing librarians out.

Reflecting on the controversies of the past two months, Snelson says she expects ACS to benefit from hearing the criticisms. “ACS Publications is grappling with this and I think will come out stronger at the end,” she says. “Having these conversations can only help.”


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