Bundling e-journals

by Chris Bertram on September 30, 2003

There’s an interesting communication on Brian Leiter’s site about the price of the notoriously expensive philosophy journal Synthese . The incapacity of academics for any kind of concerted collective action has long been demonstrated by the failure of university libraries to organized a boycott of Kluwer (publishers of Synthese and a number of other overpriced journals). [Update: See also Brian Weatherson’s site and Leiter’s comment there.] But I wanted to comment on this paragraph in order to report something I heard in Belgium last year:

With respect to the institutional pricing, things aren’t quite as simple or as bad as the raw number implies. The way things stand now, the number of paper subscriptions from institutions is slowly decreasing. However, the number of libraries buying electronic subscriptions to a bundle of journals (including Synthese) now outnumbers those subscribing to the paper copy. As libraries stop renewing their paper copy, they have tended to shift to the online version as part of an arrangement where they subscribe to all or a selection of the Kluwer journals. Consequently, the price that libraries pay for the e-version of Synthese is considerably less than €/$1652. I can’t give you a precise figure because the price varies depending on the arrangement that libraries or consortia of libraries make with Kluwer. Chances are, if your library now carries the print version of Synthese, they will soon within the next few years and will adopt it in electronic form as part of an electronic bundle of journals instead.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

A report I heard from a seminar on electronic publishing in Brussels in October 2002, suggests something more sinister is at work. Kluwer—and to some extent other major journal publishers—are now focusing on selling bundles of electronic journals to university libraries. These bundles are expensive, and are provided on an all-or-nothing basis. Now academics in fields X,Y, and Z just have to get journals P, Q, and R. The reasoning is then, the the subscriptions to the bundles provided by major publishers will constitute an ever growing proportion of overstretched library budgets.

As many academics know, there’s constant pressure to cut expenditure on journals. When the next round of cuts comes, the all-or-nothing bundle will mean that cutting, say, Kluwer journals, isn’t a realistic option. It will be those journals which are published independently, or by smaller presses that will be the focus of cutting attention. Not only does this threaten the diversity and number of journals (there may be too many, but we want to lose the right ones), it also pushes editorial teams into the arms of large bundle publishers if they want to survive.

If I’m right about this—and I’m just reporting a conversation—the advent of e-publication may not bring the diversity we all expect. People who want to sell online content (rather than just giving it away) may find themselves pressured to do so via one of the existing journals conglomerates (Kluwer, Blackwell, Sage etc) because those are the ones the libraries hand their money over to.

{ 14 comments }

1

dsquared 09.30.03 at 9:16 am

I’m in a self-citatory mood today, so I’ll refer readers to my previous article on micropayments. My point would be that I don’t believe that this is too much of an apocalyptic scenario (although I’d point out that bundling is almost always a pernicious commercial practice and quite often actually illegal), because I tend to think that “small press” operations of this kind ought to be free rather than sold anyway. I don’t believe that any small academic imprints make money, and I’d further hypothesise (on the same basis as my micropayments article; because there are many fewer transactions costs in a “free” model versus “nonfree”) that they would in general lose less money if they gave away the product for nothing.

We can actually put this to the test with a bit of direct data. Chris runs a world-class journal (“Imprints”), which as far as I can see from its subs page is basically a small-press affair. So the two questions I’d ask would be:

1. Am I right in assuming that Imprints runs at a small operating loss?

2. Would I be correct in assuming that that operating loss is larger than the running costs of Crooked Timber?

If the answer to the above questions is “yes”, then it would make sense (from a commercial point of view, abstracting from issues of the academic status of print versus online journals) to turn Imprints into a free, electronic-only product. Or am I missing something?

2

dsquared 09.30.03 at 9:29 am

Also, am I living a sort of Marie-Antoinette aristocratic fantasy life, or is Synthese actually quite cheap at $70 for 15 issues (c. £3 a shot). That’s the same price as the Economist. Or (I think I will make this my catchphrase, I quite like it) am I missing something?

3

Chris 09.30.03 at 10:17 am

Actually, Imprints runs at a profit….

That’s only sort-of true, though, since we don’t take account of the time and commitment of the editorial committee members including the time that it takes me and another person to DTP the whole thing. But the only actual money costs are for reproduction of the insides and the setting, the printing and binding of the cover, the cost of sending boxes from Bristol to Bradford and the mailing costs. All of which costs are more than offset by subscription income, especially that from Japanese university libraries.
—-
I agree, btw that $70 individuals pay for 15 issues is good value. The $1652 charged to institutions is, however, not.

4

dsquared 09.30.03 at 11:53 am

No, fair enough, that was the basis I was asking on, and that’s very interesting indeed. And that’s on the basis of a £30 institutional subscription for three issues (£60 for non-Europeans), for anyone who can’t be bothered going through the link. It appears I’ve overestimated the costs of production. Would it be cheeky of me to inquire about the circulation?

5

Chris 09.30.03 at 12:24 pm

Very low. Though I don’t look after that side of things – but well under 200. (Compared to 15,000 accesses of the free on-line content in August.) I would, though, vouch for the quality of the subscriber list – includes some top people.

6

dsquared 09.30.03 at 12:47 pm

christ this is interesting …

Well with those as the facts, I clearly need to revise my assumptions about the viability of small-press publishing. I guess that the total cost of subscribing to Imprints to a library would be significantly higher, as they would need to bind the issues if they wanted to keep them, which doesn’t come cheap, but if anything that supports your case that it becomes more difficult for a library to justify subscribing to journals outside the Kluwer package. I guess it just goes to show that bundling is always an anti-consumer practice (as mentioned above, I am not at all sure that it is not an anti-competitive practice within the meaning of the act).

I also have a bit of a problem with e-distribution, thinking about it. Given the uses made of an academic journal, e-distribution means that rather than printing a publication in bulk on a press, you print the same number of copies one at a time on a laser printer. Stripped of external costs and subsidies, that’s got to be a mad method of distribution.

Has anyone thought of a legal challenge to the bundled distribution?

7

dsquared 09.30.03 at 12:47 pm

(after all, bundling was one of the main issues at stake in the Microsoft antitrust case).

and now I suppose I ought to buy a subscription to Imprints myself, after all that …

8

Barry 09.30.03 at 3:48 pm

dsquared, the print on demand has several advantages that IMHO make up for what would seem to be more inefficient print runs.

Those articles which more people want to read would be printed more. In a single print run, almost all articles are printed in far greater quantity than needed.

The printing materials (bulk paper, ink cartriges) are distributed in a mass, undifferentiated mode. As opposed to journals, where the right number of copies of each item have to make it to the right shelves. Most offices are already stocking paper by the case, and buying quantities of ink cartriges. Those materials can be used to print out whatever the office people need, whether it’s journal articles or comic strips.

In most cases, the journal reader will have to go to the stacks to look through back copies of journals, wasting considerable time. And articles of interest will still be copied, thereby consuming printing materials.

In addition, e-copies can be searched far more easily than hard copies.

9

dsquared 09.30.03 at 4:19 pm

Yeh, I hear what you’re saying. But laser printer toner is *so* freaking expensive compared to printers’ ink. We need to come up with some sort of cost model here …

10

eszter 09.30.03 at 4:21 pm

An interesting question is whether publishers are keeping up with these changes to track the popularity of their journals. (You’d think it’s a no-brainer, but my guess is they haven’t all taken that extra step.) That is, publishers used to look at circulation of print copies to determine whether they should keep publishing a journal. Now that print copies are less and less common and subscriptions are sold in bundles, they would need to track access to individual copies and articles to determine which journals are worth publishing. (My knowledge about all this comes via my parents who’ve been involved in journal and book publishing for years.)

Re the efficiency in printing, I agree with Barry that it seems more efficient for people to simply print hard copies of articles they want to read since those people usually end up getting their personal copies via some method anyway and the real change is not having hard copies of unread pieces around.

11

Chris 09.30.03 at 4:31 pm

D^2: Printers ink is cheap, but the set-up costs for real printing are high. So you need a highish print-run in order to break even. But once you’ve done so the low marginal cost of further copies means you’re making lots of money thereafter.

Use a copying process (as Imprints does for the text but not the covers) and you can break even whilst producing far fewer copies. The catch being that the marginal cost always stays rather high.

12

Barry 09.30.03 at 8:03 pm

“Yeh, I hear what you’re saying. But laser printer toner is so freaking expensive compared to printers’ ink. We need to come up with some sort of cost model here …”

Posted by dsquared · September 30, 2003 04:19 PM

Aside from the huge fixed costs of print runs, I imagine that the more popular journal articles are extensively xeroxed, which means that the large per-copy printing costs are still there. I know that I went through a *lot* of copies when I was a grad student. And that was paying for them myself.

13

dsquared 10.01.03 at 7:06 am

Guys: I’ll try and crunch some numbers in my copious free time and maybe put up an article.

Ezster: But I don’t think that popularity matters all that much for an academic journal publisher; since their market is libraries, what they need is a journal that’s absolutely essential to one person rather than one that’s quite interesting to twenty.

14

eszter 10.02.03 at 11:56 pm

Oh, but as library budgets are shrinking, libraries are cutting back on all sorts of journals. While the subscriptions weren’t bundled, they could get rid of one individually. And there are lots of very topic specific journals that many many many libs don’t get. There are tons of academic libraries and they do make selections as to what they purchase so you don’t get an automatic audience/market just b/c you’re publishing an academic journal.

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