Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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8.8 What Are We Really Buying?
We mentioned earlier that scientists consider journal attributes to be important in their decision-making process and that availability and relative costs of alternative sources of information are important as well. Another perspective is that scientists are buying two product components: (1) the information contents and their attributes and (2) combinations of distribution means and media. With traditional scientific scholarly journals (and articles) the information contents and attributes remain the same regardless of combination of distribution means and media used. Furthermore, article processing cost required to provide the information contents is essentially the same regardless of distribution means and media. That is, regardless of where scientists obtain articles—from personal subscriptions in paper or electronic medium, library-provided articles in paper or electronic medium, or in separate copies from a database, colleague, or author—the article processing cost is about the same for all distribution alternatives. Thus, one can ignore the article of processing costs and focus on the costs of the alternative distribution means and media.
First, just a note of clarification concerning the article processing costs. In the literature one finds widely varying estimates of these costs, say, from $400 per 20-page article (Harnad, quoted in Halliday and Oppenheim, this volume) to $8,000 per article in mathematics journals (Odlyzko, 1995). The lower estimates tend to be made by those publishing exclusively electronic journals and who are strong advocates for doing away with the paper medium. Yet, in a sense, making such cost comparison is a moot point because journals in which costs are as low as $400 per article could just as easily be distributed in paper issues at the additional cost of reproduction and distribution (i.e., about $40 to $50 per subscription). Thus, in order to at least breakeven the price that publishers charge would have to recover two components of their cost: (1) article processing to provide information content (i.e., anywhere between $400 to $8,000 per article) and (2) the cost of distribution means/media of the version preferred by users. Obviously, distribution cost by electronic media is negligible, whether through access by subscription or by separate copy of articles. Paper distribution of subscriptions tends to be in the $40 to $50 per subscription range and compared with paper distribution by interlibrary loan or document delivery which tends to be in the $15 to $30 per article range (see also Spinella, this volume).
Thus, based on the added $40 to $50 per subscription of paper distribution, it might seem that electronic distribution would always be the alternative of choice. However, when amount of reading and costs to users other than the price paid are taken into account, the choices are not so clear. For example, most of the readings of current articles are identified through browsing for the purpose of keeping up with the literature. Assuming the $50 paper distribution cost and that a scientist reads 50 articles from a year's subscription, the distribution component of the price would cost the scientist only $1 per reading versus near zero cost for electronic access. Yet when the cost of scientists' time for browsing and equipment are included, it appears that the paper version costs less per reading or is very close to that of the electronic version. Other aspects, then, of the two versions could prevail in decision-making which may explain why scientists overwhelmingly choose print over electronic personal subscriptions, but electronic over print for use of library collections.
Similar arguments can be made for library decisions concerning purchase of paper or electronic subscriptions or access to separate copies of articles. Here the unit cost per reading paper distribution can also be negligible because reading is in the hundreds for some journals. Thus, again, libraries can choose one or both versions depending on factors other than cost to them of the price paid and the cost of processing electronic or print issues.
Of course, publishers do not distinguish between the information content and distribution components of price. However, Harnad and others have suggested that authors or their funders pay for the information content (i.e., article processing) and then journals would be "free," since articles would be distributed electronically (Halliday and Oppenheim, this volume). This suggestion ignores the potential desirability of the paper distribution medium that might be less expensive to some users and/or preferred for some other reason.
The point is that there is some merit in distinguishing between the information content and distribution components of costs/prices. The article processing costs have remained relatively stable or perhaps decreased some over the years, and these costs are now recovered primarily by library budgets versus an earlier combination of lower library payment and payment by scientists through subscription albeit often from discretionary funds provided by their employers. This transfer of cost recovery from scientists to libraries resulted in publishers being publicly criticized or blamed for spiraling prices, libraries paying more for less information, and scientists paying more in the scarce resource of their time. Funders of the scientists and libraries are questioning the whole process, even though in fact they may be paying less in cost per reading considering all resources expended.
One can make a strong argument for author funders paying the information content costs since they already pay for authors' time. The 2003 survey at the University of Pittsburgh yielded an estimate of 95 hours of scientists' time per article authored. Thus, their funders appear to pay far more than the cost to publishers in processing articles. At least two initiatives are trying this approach to publishing. The Public Library of Science proposes to charge $1,500 per article (not too different from our $1,660 article processing model cost above) and BioMedCentral proposes a $500 per article fee (with some institutional membership alternatives),
However, for such initiatives to be widely accepted by all system participants, they must be convinced of the economic incentives involved. We believe that this can be achieved by understanding the flow of funds among the participants. For example, preliminary analysis of the flow of funds from sources (e.g., government, universities, industry, etc.) to organizational R&D performers and then to authors and readers suggests that author sources of funds come roughly from the following sources: industry (25%), government (33%), foundations (7%), and solely unversities (35%). However, readership sources of funds are not nearly equally allocated (i.e., solely university [20%]; universities funded through external sources [4%]; and solely non-university [76%]).
There are other important aspects of the flow of funds as well. For example, where do publishing R&D funds come from—government, foundations, commercial investors, and so on? What is the international "balance of information" determined by authorship and reading? For example, the 2003 University of Pittsburgh survey shows that 9 percent of articles read by these scientists are authored by US scientists, 24 percent by non-US scientists and seven percent are collaboration by US and non-US scientists.