Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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From the above example, we can ascertain a few principles to help guide publishers in assessing the risks and costs of a transition to electronic publishing. First, when the publication's variable costs are a larger portion of the total cost than the fixed, moving online will likely be less risky. This is because the greater the savings that can be accomplished from electronic publication, the deeper the subscription losses would have to be before they caused the fixed-cost distribution to rise more than the variable-cost savings. This enables us to create a profile of the type of journal that would be the best candidate for moving to online publication rapidly:
high page counts and/or high frequency,
narrow, focused editorial scope,
small, if any, reliance on advertising revenue.
Low circulation and high page counts would tend to lead to poor economies of scale, thus one would expect substantial variable costs. In addition, if the circulation were mainly library subscriptions, not personal, and were mainly purchased at one copy per institution, the likelihood of revenue cannibalization or centralization of buyers impacting the journal would be smaller. Narrow editorial scope would contribute to maintaining relatively lower fixed costs. Lack of advertising revenue would simplify the risk assessment for moving online and reduce the chances of revenue cannibalization. These circumstances describe a very significant number of scholarly journals, particularly those published by non-profit discipline-focused societies.
Should we, therefore, not expect to see journals moving online that do not meet these criteria? In some ways, high-circulation journals with a variety of revenue streams might seem to have everything to lose and nothing to gain by undertaking the transition. However, recall from the discussion at the beginning of the chapter that the attractions of online publishing for larger scholarly journals are many:
greatly enhanced reader benefits,
broader and more convenient accessibility,
brand extension and preservation,
possibility of substantial variable-cost savings combined with the promise of novel revenue streams,
ability to remain up-to-date and relevant to readers, to defend against obsolescence.
With both reader demand and library demand for enhanced service so high, it is inevitable that journals of all stripes will begin moving online. One important factor for the larger publications will be trying to create some way to either preserve the print subscriptions or translate the broad print audience of buyers to an equally broad audience of buyers online. The more widely fixed costs can be distributed the lower will be the price for all parties. In the print world, of course, this would be a commonplace understanding. Ironically, however, in the current context of online publishing, this modest insight seems like heterodoxy, since it follows from the counterintuitive assertion that, in some circumstances, online publishing could actually result in higher priced subscriptions than print.
Publishers, librarians and readers of scientific journals are all rightly inspired and intrigued by the great possibilities for electronic publishing to revolutionize and democratize scholarly communication. But if the publishing and peer-reviewing processes add value to those communications—and most observers continue to agree that they do—then these cooperating parties will need to come to a fuller understanding of the economics that underlie the process. Care must be taken that in the rush to implement new technologies to benefit readers, we do not undermine the fundamentals that make publishing a useful, as well as a financially viable, enterprise.