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.