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    12.1 The Environment

    Over the past 15 years, libraries have struggled with the growing gap between the price of scholarly resources and their ability to pay. Data collected by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a membership organization of over 120 of the largest research libraries in North America, reveal that the unit cost paid by research libraries for serials increased by 207% between 1986 and 1999 (Association of Research Libraries, 1999). While serial costs increased at 9% a year, library materials budgets increased at only 6.7% a year. Libraries simply could not sustain their purchasing power with such a significant gap. Even though the typical research library spent 170% more on serials in 1999 than in 1986, the number of serial titles purchased declined by 6%. More dramatically, book purchases declined by 26%. With such a drastic erosion in the market for books, publishers had no choice but to raise prices (although not nearly as high as did journal publishers). In 1999, the unit cost of books had increased 65% over 1986 costs. As points of comparison, over the same time period, the consumer price index increased 52%, faculty salaries increased 68%, and health care costs increased 107% (Association of Research Libraries, 1999; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000; American Association of University Professors, 1986, 1999).

    At the same time price increases were straining library budgets, an explosion in the volume of new knowledge and new formats was adding yet more stress. According to Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory, the number of serials published increased over 54% between 1986 and 2000 from 103,700 to over 160,000 titles (Ulrich's, 2000; Okerson, 1989). While the majority of these titles are not scholarly journals and would not be collected by research libraries, the data does give some indication of the health of the serials publishing industry. According to figures from UNESCO, over 850,000 books were published worldwide in 1996 (Greco, 1999). Data from the top 15 producing countries reveals that book production increased 50% between 1985 and 1996 (Greco, 1999; Grannis, 1991). In the meantime, electronic publishing is booming with the number of peer-reviewed electronic journals increasing well over 570 times between 1991 and 2000 (Association of Research Libraries, 2000a). While worldwide output of information resources increases dramatically, the research library is purchasing a smaller and smaller proportion of what is available. The typical library that subscribed to 16,312 serial titles and 32,679 monographs in 1986 is now able to afford only 15,259 serials and 24,294 monographs (Association of Research Libraries, 1999).

    The overall high prices and significant price increases of journals have been traced to titles in science, technology, and medicine (STM). Price increases in these areas have averaged from 9 to 13% a year over at least the past decade (Albee and Dingley, 2000). Many librarians believe that the dominance of commercial publishers in STM journals publishing is one of the underlying causes of the high prices. In addition, the consolidation going on in the publishing industry raises even more concerns that fewer companies with greater market power will exacerbate current trends.

    The growth of the commercial presence in scholarly publishing has introduced a market economy to an enterprise that had been considered by scholars as a "circle of gifts." Scholars have always been interested in the widest possible dissemination of their work and the ability to build on the work of others. To share their findings with colleagues and claim precedent for their ideas they have been willing to give away their intellectual effort for no direct financial remuneration. Their rewards come in the form of reputation within their fields and promotion and tenure from their institutions. Scholars trusted that the publishers to whom they gave their work were operating in their best interests, intent on furthering the scholarly enterprise through wide distribution of research results.

    For a long time, this arrangement worked well. Publishers helped shape the disciplines by collecting manuscripts in specific fields, managing the peer review process, and marketing and selling subscriptions. But as a few large publishers recognized the earnings potential of a constant supply of free content that must be purchased by libraries, they raised prices higher and higher. As noted by King and Tenopir in Chapter 8, individuals who are more sensitive to price changes were the first to cancel their subscriptions. Eventually, however, even libraries were forced to launch major cancellation projects, decreasing access and resulting in additional price increases for the remaining subscribers. While it may seem counter-intuitive that selling fewer copies could increase revenues, there is some evidence to suggest that particularly in the case of mergers this is in fact the case (see McCabe, Chapter 11). So the wide distribution desired by authors can be directly opposed to the strategy used by publishers to maximize their profits.

    It is important to acknowledge that commercial publishers are doing exactly what their stockholders would expect them to do. They are behaving responsibly toward their shareholders, their highest priority. This need to protect shareholder value, however, sometimes conflicts directly with the need for scholars to both distribute their own work widely and have ready access to the work of others.