Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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12.3 Calls for Competition
In 1988, at the request of ARL, the Economic Consulting Services Inc. (ECS) undertook a study of trends in average subscription prices and publisher costs from 1973-1987. The study compared the price per page over time of a statistically valid sample of approximately 160 journal titles published by four major commercial publishers (Elsevier, Pergamon, Plenum, and Springer-Verlag) with an estimated index of publishing costs over the same time period. The study concluded that the price-per-page of the journals exceeded the growth in costs by 2.6 to 6.7% a year. This meant that these companies could be enjoying operating profits of 33 to 120% a year. The ECS concluded that "If such estimated rates of growth are reasonably accurate, then the library community would benefit greatly from such measures as the encouragement of new entrants into the business of serials publishing, and the introduction of a program to stimulate greater competition among publishers by injecting a routine of competitive bidding for publishing contracts of titles whose ownership is not controlled by the publishers (Economic Consulting Services Inc., 1989)."
In a companion piece to the ECS study, a contract report by Ann Okerson defined the causes of the "serials crisis" and proposed a set of actions to confront the problems. The report concluded that "the distribution of a substantial portion of academic research results through commercial publishers at prices several times those charged by the not-for-profit sector is at the heart of the serials crisis (Okerson, 1989)." The report went on to note that:
Satisfactory, affordable channels for traditional serials publication already exist. For example, there are reasonably priced commercial serials publishers. Many of the non-profit learned societies are already substantial publishers. University presses could substantially expand their role in serials publishing.... The serials currently produced by these organizations are significantly less expensive than those from the commercial publishers, even though they may increase in price at similar rates. Several analyses of the "impact" of serials, in terms of the readership achieved per dollar, show that those produced by non-commercial sources have a higher impact than commercial titles. (p.43)
Among the recommendations in the report was one centered on introducing competition: "ARL should strongly advocate the transfer of publication of research results from serials produced by commercial publishers to existing non-commercial channels. ARL should specifically encourage the creation of innovative non-profit alternatives to traditional commercial publishers." p.42
Over the next several years, ARL directed great energy at engaging stakeholders beyond the library community, such as societies, university presses, and university administrators, in the discussions of the scholarly communication crisis. The Association of American Universities (AAU) formed a series of task forces to address key issues related to research libraries. The Task Force on a National Strategy for Managing Scientific and Technological Information took up, as its name suggests, the issues related to scholarly journals publishing. In its report of May 1994, the Task Force called for competition, but this time competition facilitated through electronic publishing. The recommendation stated that the community should "introduce more competition and cost-based pricing into the marketplace for STI by encouraging a mix of commercial and not-for-profit organizations to engage in electronic publication of the results of scientific research (Association of American Universities, 1994)."
As a result of the work of the task force, ARL proposed several projects intended to address the crisis in scholarly publishing. These were rejected as too narrow or too broad or not directed at the appropriate leverage point in the system. Reaching consensus among the membership on a way forward seemed less and less likely. In the meantime, prices continued to climb. Finally, in May of 1997, at an ARL membership meeting, Ken Frazier, Director of Libraries at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, proposed that "If 100 institutions would put up $10,000 each to fund 10 start-up electronic journals that would compete head to head with the most expensive scientific and technical journals to which we subscribe, we would have $1 million annually.... I don't see any way around the reality that we have to put the money out in order to make this start to happen (Michalak, 2000)."
Within six months, Frazier's proposal had a name—SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a business plan was in development, and potential partnerships were under discussion. In June 1998, a SPARC Enterprise Director was hired (Richard Johnson) and the first partnership (with the American Chemical Society) was announced.