Monday, 12 April 2010

Evil Empires and many Davids ... latest on publisher practices

Meridith Farkas has recently blogged about EBSCO's continued policy of providing market 'exclusives' on popular academic journal titles in their packages, to the extent of removing journal backfiles from JSTOR. This also ties users into EBSCO's set of discovery tools which many find unwieldy and restrictive.

Furthermore, the society that publishes the journal seems to be complicit in this practice. Comments on the blog reveal a lot of anger from Librarians. Barbara Fister summed the situation up neatly at

Farkas offers a synonym for “exclusive”: extortion. She also, in an incisive analysis worthy of von Clausewitz, surmises that the society has found a nifty way to increase their membership by removing its journal from most libraries that had it through the nearly-ubiquitous Academic Search Premier. You want the journal? Join the club.

Out of this situation, librarians tend to arrive at three conclusions:

  • Articles published in this journal have deliberately been made into an artificially scarce resource.
  • The society involved and/or EBSCO stand to make more money because of this new scarcity.
  • Fewer people will have access to the information—and parties to the exclusive agreement think that’s great!

What’s interesting in all this is that the major providers of access to this journal—libraries—were not consulted at all. In fact, Farkas only found out about it because links through Serials Solution that used to point her patrons to access points in JSTOR and Academic Search Premier had simply vanished.

Who’s got the ransom note?
Here’s where I think the word “extortion” doesn’t quite work. Usually, extortionists communicate with their victims: “pay us, or else.” In this case, libraries have had to stumble across the “or else” before they could do some frantic research to find out where to send the ransom and what it will cost while patrons stand at the reference desk or wait on the phone, rolling their eyes at stupid librarians.

Are we so insignificant that nobody even bothered to copy us on the ransom note?

I personally feel that issues raised in these two articles tie directly in the mission of the Arcadia fellowship; exploring the role of the library in the networked environment, specifically how we can meaningfully interact with the providers of online scholarly content.

As well as curators of print and digitised material, libraries currently play a major role in purchasing and negotiating large packages of online material. However, when faced with this kind of practice we can arguably appear obsolete as unnecessary middle-men.

Lorcan Dempsey visited Cambridge late last year and remarked in a discussion that 'a medium sized academic library that uses EBSCO for the majority of its online material might as well replace its library with EBSCO', (or words to that effect). Another recent survey in the States has warned of the increasing irrelevance of academic libraries.

Potential solutions in dealing with this kind of practice include negotiating collectively, as we in the UK are continuing to do so in a greater fashion through JISC collections.
In a follow up post, Meredith queries if consortia in the States are doing this. Certainly, the response from the library community to EBSCO's practices shows that we are at least willing to co-ordinate on sharing experiences and feelings regarding publisher and vendor practice.

Or on a more radical note, maybe its time to give the whole peer review model that underpins academic publishing a serious rethink? Digital repositories continue to be only marginally successful as alternative and open publishing methods, and will continue to be so as long as the processes of peer review remain with journal publishers. Peer review is in itself a sound and trusted method of ensuring academic credibility, but why do the methods and processes of review and the distribution of peer reviewed output need to remain in the hands of profit making bodies?

With Librarians and publishers getting together at UKSG this week, its all food for thought.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Another worrying practice supported (if not initiated) by EBSCO is restricting libraries/universities ability to link to specific articles. The notable example is the Harvard Business Review, which does not allow direct links to be provided to articles from 'learning environments' without additional payment - see for some more details. When combined with the exclusivity aspect (I believe that EBSCO offer the only route for libraries to subscribe to HBR online) this is even more worrying.