Library today: Publisher’s pricing decisions affect UST Libraries – two case studies

Academic libraries around the world continue to work with publishers to negotiate prices for scholarly literature that are fair for both parties. UST libraries examine costs of content carefully as renewal time arrives every year. Two recent cases point out the kinds of issues that are of concern as we work through this process.

In late October 2009, UST Libraries was informed by the periodical vendor that Scientific American had increased its annual subscription price from $39.95 to $299 for institutional subscribers. Because the announcement came too late in the renewal process, we were unable to consider canceling for the 2010 subscription year.

This price increase greatly exceeds what we would consider a necessary and customary increase for a journal subscription. In this weak economic environment, many publishers have agreed to hold the line on their subscription prices, presenting us with modest (at least historically modest) 6 percent increases or none at all. Scientific American justified its increase partly on the grounds that it hadn’t raised its price in 10 years. Even so, a sevenfold increase in price is unreasonable, from the libraries’ perspective. Even at 10 percent per year every year for 10 years, the price still would be about $85.

Scientific American was, at one time, considered an essential academic library title; however, we have experienced decreasing use of the print version of the magazine from a high in 2000-2001 of 100 uses down to only 15 in 2008-2009. Calculated on a “cost-per-use” basis, that is nearly $20 per use at the new subscription price; furthermore, while it is heavily indexed in online databases and indexes it gets little online use.

UST Libraries provides access to the electronic version of Scientific American through EBSCO Megafile from 1995 to the present. That being said, UST Libraries has physical (print and microform) Scientific American holdings back to 1845. It is one of the oldest American magazines informing general audiences about scientific advancements.

Libraries from across the country are canceling the title based on this extraordinary price increase. The UST Libraries also will consider this title for cancellation next year.

In another development, in May 2009, UST Libraries was reclassified by vendor-publisher Wiley as a multicampus institution. With that change in classification came an expectation to sign a license that required St. Thomas to guarantee that it could not cancel any of its online titles – ever! This new requirement applies only to electronic editions of Wiley publications and only to subscribers designated as “multicampus” institutions. The publisher justified the increase by providing a cap on annual inflationary increases. 

After being unable to find someone at Wiley who would be willing to negotiate this new designation, Linda Hulbert, UST Libraries’ associate director for collection management and services, appealed to her colleagues around the country via a discussion list. Within two hours of her posting, Wiley’s vice president for sales was on the phone with her negotiating. Based on this conversation, Hulbert was able to negotiate a more advantageous position for the UST Libraries – that it would continue as a single-campus library, and not be in the position of canceling all of its online Wiley content.

These examples characterize two things that UST Libraries would like the UST community to know:

  1. Academic and scholarly publishers are experiencing dramatic changes in their business environment and will look for ways to pass their costs and liabilities on to their customers, particularly the academic libraries upon which they depend.
  2. The library staff at the University of St. Thomas is working daily and attentively to hold its collection costs down, while continuing to provide access to the best scholarly material for the UST community.

For more information on the issue of scholarly publishing and its impact on libraries, e-mail Linda Hulbert or Dan Gjelten.