Friday, 13 December 2013

Imminent capitulation of research institutes in "negotiations" with publishers

Recently, I have read pathetic emails from librarians who are involved in "negotiations" with publishers for the renewal of subscriptions to academic journals -- subscriptions which, if not renewed, will lapse at the end of this year. Subscriptions are "negotiated" at a high level: nationwide consortiums of research institutes on one side, large publishers selling bundles of hundreds of journals on the other side. Here is how such "negotiations" go: the publisher demands an outrageous price, and the consortium agrees to that price, minus a symbolic discount if the publisher wants the consortium to save face.

This outcome is the inevitable result of the basic economics of the game. A big publisher enjoys a de facto monopoly on his journals, and can therefore set prices based on what they think the consortium can pay. The only way out for the consortium would be to threaten not to subscribe. But the larger the consortium, the more researchers there are who will say they cannot live without the subscription, and the least credible the threat is. Anyway, consortiums are built with the specific aim of subscribing, and do not have the option to do otherwise.

This is why the "negotiations" with publishers are not really negotiations, and why the negotiators are so dispirited.
Let me paraphrase the contents of a negotiator's recent message to researchers:
The publisher's proposed price is unacceptable, so we will not accept it right now. Instead, we will say that we are unhappy, and wait a bit longer before accepting. But be assured that we will accept in the end.
This negotiating tactic, and the fact it was semi-publicly disclosed, are obviously naive in the extreme, and would be disastrous if the "negotiations" had any real purpose. But they don't. The hapless librarians who are sent to negotiate waste their time compiling detailed statistics about numbers of downloads, costs per article, avoiding double-dipping via Gold open access or SCOAP3, etc. All these statistics are irrelevant, as they are not directly related to what determines the prices -- namely, what the publishers think research institutes can pay, based mainly on what they paid in the past.

So are research institutes doomed to capitulate to the ever-increasing demands of publishers at each round of "negotiations"? Not necessarily, but they would need to rethink their approach. There are three important things to understand:
  • Negotiations should be conducted by entities small enough for credibly threatening not to subscribe, for having relatively homogeneous needs in terms of access to journals, and for having direct contact with individual researchers. Of course this would run contrary to the natural tendency of administrative centralization. This excessive centralization means that individual researchers are de facto allies of publishers in the "negotiations", since researchers have nothing to lose from price increases, but much to lose from subscription cancellations.
  • Researchers and administrators should realize that subscriptions are not the only way of accessing the literature, although they are the most convenient. As I argued in detail in this note (in French), articles can easily be hoarded and shared, so that buying the few individual articles which cannot be freely obtained could cost less than subscriptions. However, to translate this into a credible threat of dropping subscriptions, research institutes need to prepare the transition well in advance with their employees.
  • Everyone, publishers included, should realize that the cost of journals could decrease by at least a factor of ten, as demonstrated by recently founded journals such as PeerJ. It is ridiculous to complain about two-digit profit margins of publishers, and to beg for a decrease of a few percent of the costs of subscriptions, when it would be possible to achieve a decrease of a few orders of magnitude.
Of course, individual researchers could do their bit by boycotting the worst publishers. But why would they? They are not in the least involved in the "negotiations", whose progress is not regularly reported to them, and whose conclusions are often kept secret. Researcher will not mobilize if a nationwide consortium asks them to. They might mobilize if their own laboratory or department encountered difficulties in its own negotiations, and if the outcome of the negotiations directly affected how much money was available to them for other purposes.