Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the Bullet

12.5 Evaluating the SPARC Model

The SPARC Purchasing Commitment

As SPARC was being developed, several key decisions had to be made to determine its scope of action. It was clear that the main goal of SPARC was to reduce the price of STM journals. Based on the several analyses of the journals crisis mentioned above, the SPARC founders believed that introducing direct head-to-head competition with high priced titles would be the most effective strategy for achieving this goal. But would SPARC itself be the publisher and actually fund and distribute the competing journals? Or would it provide development funds to established publishers who would launch the new titles? Or would the promise of library subscriptions be enough to encourage publishers to participate?

The SPARC working group quickly rejected the notion of SPARC becoming a publisher. Many able and sympathetic publishers already existed. Moreover, SPARC did not yet have a name. SPARC supported titles would need to develop prestige quickly to attract editors, authors, and readers, as well as subscribers. While prestige necessarily takes time to establish, the working group members believed that partnering with traditional scholarly societies and university presses known for their high-quality publications could help speed the process along. In addition, working with prestigious partners would help SPARC establish its own reputation.

SPARC, then, saw its role as a catalyst to encourage primarily not-for-profit scholarly publishers to create the new titles. Many working group members indicated their willingness to contribute substantial amounts of money to SPARC to allow it to provide incentives to publishers in the form of development funds. But early conversations with some potential partners revealed that, at least for traditional publishers, what was needed most was libraries' subscription dollars. The publishers were willing to absorb the up-front development costs if they could be assured that libraries would subscribe early on to the new titles. This would ensure wide visibility from the beginning, reduce the amount of time publishers would need to recover their investments, and avoid possible legal entanglements that could result from external funding arrangements. Hence the evolution of SPARC's incentive plan for publishers: a commitment by SPARC member libraries that they would subscribe to SPARC partner journals as long as the titles fit into their collections profile.

While the purchase commitment is one of the greatest attractions of SPARC for publishers, it is one of the most controversial parts of SPARC's program for some of its members. In essence, SPARC's alternatives program is creating new titles that members are expected to buy (or is contributing to journal proliferation, as some would say). The founders of SPARC recognized that changing the system would require investment by libraries. While they hoped that university administrators would provide special allocations to support SPARC fees and purchase commitments, it is more likely the case that funds are coming from already over-stretched collections budgets. Purchase of a new SPARC title likely requires the cancellation of another title. In theory, that other title should be the existing high-priced journal. But these are often established journals and cannot easily be cancelled. Over time, as competition works, the high-priced titles should lose authors to the new titles and should ultimately be forced to lower their prices or at least curtail their price increases. As valuable content is lost, the titles will become easier to cancel. But this takes time, and, in the meantime, some publishers have started to bundle their products, eliminating the opportunity to cancel.

Nevertheless, as the number of new SPARC alternatives grows, it may be possible for libraries to cancel only a few of the competitors to be able to recoup their investment in SPARC titles. In early 2001, the 10 commercial titles with which SPARC alternatives compete head-to-head cost a total of over $40,000. The 10 SPARC titles cost a total of just over $5,200. The cancellation of only a few of the established titles would easily pay for the SPARC titles.

In the meantime, SPARC has launched a program intended to make the cancellation of the original title easier. Called Declaring Independence, this effort is directed at journal editors and encourages them to evaluate the effectiveness of their current journals in meeting the needs of the researchers in their community. If the findings are unsatisfactory and they are unable to negotiate improvements with their current publishers, Declaring Independence gives the editorial board members suggestions for moving their journals elsewhere. As demonstrated by Evolutionary Ecology Research, prestigious boards will take authors with them creating a vulnerable time for the original journal as it struggles to find new editors and rebuild its author base. This is an opportune moment for libraries to cancel.

The Emergence of New Pricing Models

The founders of SPARC understood that publishing, however streamlined, cost money. The pledge of member subscriptions was a recognition of this reality. Most of the SPARC partners, particularly the traditional publishers, have maintained the typical subscription model for their new titles. A few community-based titles, however, are experimenting with alternative models. Three journals hosted by university mathematics departments are taking advantage of the ease of web-based publishing to offer their products online for free. Geometry & Topology and Algebraic & Geometric Topology are both hosted by the University of Warwick (U.K.). Documenta Mathematica is published at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. All 3 journals are run by faculty who are committed to "open-access e-journals [that] provide to authors and readers ... broad dissemination and rapid publication of research (SPARC, 2001)." All three produce a printed volume at the end of the year which is available at a minimal cost. According to the editors of Geometry & Topology, the most time-consuming part of the publishing process is the formatting of papers (Buckholtz, 2001). This work is being subsidized in part through the sale of the paper editions. This model may work while some libraries still feel compelled to purchase paper, but it is not clear what will happen when archiving and cultural issues are resolved.

Another model used by a SPARC partner is the charging of a fee to authors whose papers are accepted for publication. The New Journal of Physics (NJP), published by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society, is an electronic-only journal and available to the reader for free. A fee of $500 is charged to authors whose works are published. In order to encourage faculty to consider publishing in the NJP, a few libraries have offered to pay the fee for their faculty members. Approximately 60 papers have been published by the NJP in the last two years. As faculty have gotten less and less used to paying page charges, however, such fees may prove difficult to sustain.

Yet a third model is being explored by one of SPARC's newest partners, the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR). JMLR is published by JMLR, Inc. in partnership with the MIT Press. Two electronic versions are offered: a free site maintained by JMLR, Inc., and a paid electronic edition available on the CatchWord Service. The paid version provides additional features including linking to abstracting and indexing services, archiving, and mirror sites around the world. Quarterly paid print editions are also available from MIT Press. It will be interesting to see whether the community will pay for enhanced features when a free edition is available and whether that choice may vary by "subscriber" type, i.e., a library or an individual.