Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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2.4 Effects of barriers to use
Even small barriers to access reduce usage significantly. Statistics collected by Don King and his collaborators show that as the physical distance to a library increases, usage decreases dramatically. A recent statistical tidbit of a similar nature is the reaction of the mathematicians at Penn State when all journal issues published before 1973 had to be sent to off-site storage because of space limitations. This move was widely disliked, even though any volume can be obtained within one day. The interesting thing is that the mathematical research community of about 200 faculty, visitors, and graduate students asks for only about 850 items to be recalled from storage per year. That is just over 4 items per person per year. It seems likely (based on extrapolations from circulation figures for bound journals that are immediately available on shelves) that usage of this material was much higher when it was easily accessible in the library in their building.
When subscriptions to journals are canceled, articles from those journals are obtained through interlibrary loans or document delivery services. Some libraries (Louisiana State University's perhaps most prominent among them) have consciously decided to replace journal subscriptions with document delivery, after making a calculation of how much the journals cost per article read. While I do not have comprehensive statistics, my impression is that such moves save more than preliminary computations suggest. The secret behind this phenomenon is that usage of document delivery services is lower than that of journals available right on the spot. Having to fill out a request form and wait a day or a week reduces demand.
Librarians have known for a long time that ease of use is crucial. They experienced this with card catalogs, where materials whose catalog entries were available only in the paper card catalogs were not being used. Thus the current shift towards online usage had been anticipated.
... there's a sense in which the journal articles prior to the inception of that electronic abstracting and indexing database may as well not exist, because they are so difficult to find. Now that we are starting to see, in libraries, full-text showing up online, I think we are very shortly going to cross a sort of critical mass boundary where those publications that are not instantly available in full-text will become kind of second-rate in a sense, not because their quality is low, but just because people will prefer the accessibility of things they can get right away.
Clifford Lynch, 1997, quoted in Stevens-Rayburn and Bouton (1998)
Today, we have evidence that Clifford Lynch was correct. Note that Encyclopaedia Britannica has been a victim of this trend. Being the best did not protect it from declines in revenues, restructuring, and being forced to experiment with several business models.
The shift to online usage is exposing many of the limitations of the traditional system. Research libraries are wonderful institutions. They do provide the best service that was possible with print technology. However, in today's environment, that is not enough. Most printed scholarly papers are available typically in something like 1,000 research libraries. Those libraries are accessible to a decreasing fraction of the growing population of educated people who need them. Further, even for those scholars fortunate enough to be at an institution with a good library, the sizes of the collections are making material harder to access. Hours of availability are limited. Also, studies have shown that even when a book that is searched for is in a given library's collection, in about 40% of the cases it cannot be found when needed.
The basic problem, of course, is that it is impossible in the print world to make everything easily accessible even in the best library in the world. Space constraints mean that some material will be far from the user. In practice, most libraries can store only a tiny fraction of the material that might be of interest to their patrons. While they have been careful about selecting what seemed to be most relevant, experience shows that when easy electronic access is provided to large bodies of material not normally available in the library, there is demand for it (Luther, 2001; Bensman and Wilder, 1998). That is a major factor propelling the move towards bundling of electronic journal offerings and consortium pricing (Odlyzko, 1999).
The easy access to online resources is leading to increasing usage, as will be discussed later, and is also documented in Anderson et al. (2001), Gazzale and MacKie-Mason (this volume), Guthrie (this volume) and Luther (2001). But not all online access is equal. Many scholars use Amazon.com's search page as a first choice in doing bibliographic searches for recent books, since it is more user-friendly than the electronic catalogs of the Library of Congress, say. Luther (2001) notes, "Both Academic Press and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) noted that they experienced surges in usage after they introduced new platforms that simplified navigation and access."
Ease of use has an important bearing on pricing. Odlyzko (1995) predicted that pay-per-view was likely doomed to fail in scholarly publishing, because of its deterrent effect on usage.Publishers have now, after experiments with PEAK and other pricing models, moved to this view as well. For example, Hunter (this volume) states that
[Elsevier's] goal is to give people access to as much information as possible on a flat fee, unlimited use basis. [Elsevier's] experience has been that as soon as the usage is metered on a per-article basis, there is an inhibition on use or a concern about exceeding some budget allocation.
Similarly, Luther (2001) points out that "Philosophically, Academic Press is opposed to a business model in which charges increase with use because it discourages use."
Easy access implies not only greater use, but also changing patterns of use. For example, a recent news story discussed how the Internet is altering the doctor-patient relationship (Kolata, 2000). The example that opens the story is of a lady who is reluctantly told by the doctor she might have lupus, and leaves the clinic terrified of what this might be. She then proceeds to obtain information about this disease from the Internet. When she returns to see a different, more pleasant physician, she is well-informed and prepared to question the diagnosis and possible treatment. What is remarkable about this story is that the basic approach of this patient was feasible before the arrival of the Web. She could have gone to her local library, where the reference librarians would have been delighted to point her to many excellent print sources of medical information. However, few people availed themselves of such opportunities before. Now, with the easy availability of the Web, we see a different story.
The arguments about effects of barriers to access and of lowering such barriers suggest that scholarly communication will undergo substantial changes. We should expect to see greater use of online material. We should also see much greater use of it by people outside the narrow disciplinary areas that produce it. Much of this use will come from outside the traditional academic and research institutions, but a considerable portion is likely to come from other departments within an institution. Further, the increasing volume of material, as well as the decreasing role of traditional peer review, are likely to lead to greater demand for survey and handbook material. With lower barriers to interactions and access to specialized literature, we should also see more interdisciplinary work.