Consumer Advocacy and Scholarly Publishing

I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve had a law librarian appear as a guest here. So I was happy that Michael Ginsborg was willing to share some of his thoughts on how we might respond to the high cost of legal resources using … uh, legal remedies. His is, in a sense, a dissenting opinion from the association that he belongs to, but his commentary offers some thoughts on how we might consider involving consumer protection regulations in finding a solution to problems in scholarly communication. (How many of us have wondered, for example, whether there were anti-trust implications in the society that accredits chemistry programs selling to libraries the journals and databases that are required for accreditation? How many of us have framed support for FRPAA as a fair shake not just for strapped libraries, but for taxpayers?) I was eager to hear what he has to say. Thanks, Michael, for taking the time to share your thoughts.

“Why The Largest Publishers Require Us To Unite Efforts In Consumer Advocacy”
by Michael Ginsborg

In “Three Jermaids” (12/23/2010 NY Review of Books), Robert Darnton describes how exorbitant pricing of journal subscriptions has strained academic library budgets. Because academic libraries have had to spend much more on journals, they have much less to spend on monographs, including university press publications – with harmful consequences for scholarship. While he favors open access projects as a long-term remedy, Darnton observes that “prices of commercial journals continue to rise.” Do librarians have another remedy?

We do. We can resort to consumer advocacy, of the kind that my organization – the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) – once embraced, but has since rejected. (See my arguments in the latest issue of AALL’s newsletter, and a rejoinder by two former AALL Presidents.) In 1969, law librarian Raymond Taylor published an article in the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal, “Law Book Consumers Need Protection.” Taylor was a member of AALL’s Committee on Relations with Publishers and Dealers. He identified deceptive and other unfair business practices by legal publishers to increase profits at their customers’ expense. His seminal article led the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to adopt legal guidelines for the law book publishing industry in 1975, with support from the ABA, several state bars, and AALL. The FTC could enforce the guidelines by administrative actions or lawsuits, and consumers of legal publication could also use them to sustain claims in class action lawsuits. The FTC rescinded these and other industry guidelines in 2000, but while in effect, the guidelines for legal publishers helped restore fair dealing in advertising, billing, and sales of legal publications. (AALL stills asks legal publishers to voluntarily follow A Guide to Fair Business Practices, despite a record of repeated violations.)

The former legal publishing guidelines were not designed to prevent or reverse escalating increases in the prices of legal subscriptions. Nevertheless, Taylor’s example sets a precedent for more sweeping action by all of us – librarians across the full spectrum of the profession. For we have the means to challenge not only unfair business practices among publishers, but also anti-competitive pricing of “bundled” subscriptions. (A publisher bundles subscriptions when it charges the subscribing library for a licensed group, or package, of electronic or print subscriptions, or both.)

All types of libraries incur substantial harm – individually and together – from non-disclosure clauses in the provisions of their licenses. Such provisions are but one example of unfair business conduct by publishing conglomerates. All types of libraries also face unsustainable price increases in subscription bundling from a handful of publishers that dominate their respective publishing markets. For instance, the three largest legal publishers occupy almost 90% of the legal publishing market in the U.S.. Thomson-Reuters/Legal has a 40% market share. Oligopolies, or dominant market shares, characterize the markets of publishers that license academic library subscriptions to scientific, medical, technical, scholarly, professional and trade publications, and that license public library subscriptions.

Do we have evidence that publishers leverage their dominant market positions to stifle competition from university presses and smaller publishers? If libraries cancel electronic or print subscriptions when renewing a licensing agreement, publishers typically require them to pay increased prices across remaining products and services of the licensed package. Even where a library might switch to lower-priced alternatives, this arrangement leaves it without savings to do so. Because the same publishers also demand non-disclosure, consumers can not disclose to each other the renewal terms of price increases or discounts for specific subscriptions. In oligopoly publishing markets, or markets with “dominant” publishers, such practices by publishers at least raise a credible appearance of creating barriers to entry by lower-priced competitors.

We can build upon the consumer advocacy movement that Taylor inspired, but only by working together, through a coalition. (My colleague Bryan Carson proposes a coalition to address unfair business practices.) As a coalition, we could investigate evidence of unfair and anti-competitive practices of the largest publishers. We could work together to achieve legal reforms, by raising public awareness, seeking FTC intervention, or even – as warranted by evidence – pursuing class action lawsuits.

We have a proud tradition of defending our values. We have never limited ourselves, as AALL now does, to supporting increased public availability of only government publication. We have equally valued increased public access to all forms of copyrighted publication. But we can not advance this more inclusive ideal, without a collective commitment to consumer advocacy.

Michael Ginsborg ( has been a law librarian and AALL member for over 20 years.

photo via Morguefile

OA: Just Another Business Model

Steven Bell kindly pointed me toward an interview published in InformationToday with Derk Haank, former Elsevier executive who now is CEO of Springer. I wrote about it earlier at Library Journal’s Academic Newswire, but now that it’s available online, I thought I’d share it here, in case you’re having trouble staying awake or suffer from low blood pressure.

Haank helped organize Springer’s acquisition of BioMedCentral and has introduced some open access options for authors publishing in Springer journals. But even though these moves have made Springer one of the largest OA publishers, he thinks it’s a tiny tributary to the glory that is STM publishing, a minor revenue stream, a sop to the cranks who oddly enough care about access to research. These are mostly in the biosciences, and won’t have much effect on the future, which in his crystal ball looks very much like the present. Scientists will continue to produce more and more publications (and Springer is happy to oblige by increasing their publishing program); scientists will need to access the literature to do their work, and libraries will simply have to find ways to fund access. Subscriptions will continue to power scholarly publishing because … well, the system we have now works just fine. Publishers have recognized that libraries are strapped, so they have given up highway robbery are no longer insisting on double-digit increases annually. But since they’re publishing more, libraries will have to pay more; that’s just the reality. And all that fuss we make – that’s just a negotiation strategy.

Some choice quotes:

“e-products are much less expensive to handle [than print]: They have no storage costs, the data comes with a catalogue, and our books come with MARC records.” (No muss, no fuss … hey, can’t we just have the business office run this thing? Think of the money we’d save.)

“The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread. I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem; I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it . . . it corrected everything that went wrong in the serials crisis in one go: people were able to get back all the journals that they had had to cancel, and they gained access to even more journals in the process.” (All the journals that we don’t need that you can shake a stick at! Too bad it hasn’t worked out for anything the library used to buy that isn’t in the Deal.)

“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit but not like in the days of the serials crisis. We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.” (Hey, at least you’ll have company. Welcome to Flatland!)

“I am absolutely convinced that the traditional subscription model delivered through the intermediary services of the library or information department will remain the dominant model. You might be forgiven for thinking that the OA movement is a lot bigger than it is. That is because those people who want to change something are always more vocal than those who are happy with the way things are.” (Happy … like us? Oh, that’s right, our opinion doesn’t matter. We are but handmaidens.)

“Our first priority is to continue as we are.” (We’ve noticed.)

What’s interesting – and worth thinking about – is that he feels mandates are a genuine threat to business as usual, particularly those imposed by funders who provide billions of dollars for basic research. One more reason to agitate for FRPAA and to urge our colleagues in other departments to consider mandates, even those of us who are not at research-centric institutions.

More discussion is happening at the Library Society of the World’s online water cooler.
Image courtesy of Bob Fornal.

New and Improved – or Not?

One of the lovely surprises awaiting those who have been away from the reference desk for a while is the numerous spanking new database interfaces that have sprouted up. There seem to be more than usual this year, and while some are improvements, others, frankly, need a good spanking. One that has us particularly flummoxed is the new JSTOR interface that defaults to searching material your library doesn’t have and offers new layers of confusion. (“Is this article available at my library in another database?” “Sorry, we can’t tell you that, but we can provide a handy link through our publisher sales service to purchase articles.”)

As an aside, do publishers seriously expect people to purchase articles for $12, $25, or $35 a pop? Really? They have not met my patrons. But I digress.

I was coasting along in blissful ignorance until I got this guest post from our occasional correspondent from Bowling Green State University, Amy Fry. I have a feeling JSTOR will be getting a lot of feedback on their “improvements.” Here are some thoughts to start the conversation.


What Were They Thinking?
Amy Fry
Electronic Resources Coordinator
Bowling Green State University

Today is the first day of the new semester at BGSU, and also the first school day of the new JSTOR interface.

What were they thinking?

JSTOR began life as a journal archive, but librarians have long treated it as an all-full-text, all-scholarly database for journal literature. While its search interface lagged, with limited options to weed out unwanted items or zero in on the most relevant results, its content was stellar, and librarians felt confident promoting it to students as a reliable place to find full-text scholarly sources. As a result, JSTOR has a strong brand not only with librarians, but with faculty and students at all kinds of institutions. Those days appear to be over, at least for now.

Last year, JSTOR embarked on a “current scholarship” endeavor, which allows libraries to use JSTOR as a portal for current subscriptions to some titles. The interface upgrade that went into effect this weekend was meant to support that program. But now that the upgraded interface is live, I can see what this means for JSTOR libraries.

JSTOR has added several confusing layers to its formerly reliable content archive that are guaranteed to confound the most experienced JSTOR user. The search screen contains two limiters – “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content.” The first is unchecked by default and the second is checked by default. This guarantees the broadest journal searching in the archive, but it also means that, after doing a search, users at many institutions will see three kinds of results – ones that are full text, ones that give citation and “access options,” and ones indicating there may be full text on an “external site.”

These last are the “current issues,” and have appeared in JSTOR search results (for titles in libraries’ subscribed JSTOR modules) since last year. Clicking on one of these in the results list shows its citation, abstract and references. Since we have enabled openURL on JSTOR, it also shows our openURL button (which will allow users to link to full text or interlibrary loan). Next to our openURL button, however, there is a box that says “you may not have access,” and to “select the ‘article on external site’ link to go to a site with the article’s full text.” Nowhere on this page do I see an “article on external site” link, but at least the openURL button is there.

The real problem is with the other articles – the ones that only offer “citations and access options.” These are articles from the modules of JSTOR to which my institution does not subscribe. Formerly, articles from non-subscribed JSTOR modules did not even appear in my institution’s JSTOR search results. This was certainly preferable to how these are handled now: now when users click on them, they see the first page of the pdf and have the option to show the citation information, but at the top of the screen is a yellow box containing the text, “You do not have access to this item. Login or check our access options.” Clicking on “login” takes users to the MyJSTOR login screen which asks for your MyJSTOR username and password or gives users the option to choose their institution from a list of Athens/Shibboleth libraries. Clicking on “access options” informs the user he or she must be a member of a participating institution, links to a list of participating institutions, then gives the user the option to purchase individual articles or subscriptions. Worse, newer articles display a price and direct link to purchase the article right next to the first page of the pdf.

Nowhere on this screen do users have the option to use openURL to link to full text or interlibrary loan. In effect, JSTOR has pre-empted library subscriptions to current content for links to purchase articles directly from publishers. For example, if I found an article from The Reading Teacher in JSTOR, I will see the option to purchase it, but be offered no other way to access the full text. If the openURL button for my library appeared there, I would know that my library has access to this article in half a dozen other databases and I would never have the need to purchase it.

Academic librarians at institutions like mine – non-Athens/Shibboleth, non-full-JSTOR-archive subscribers, can expect to get a ton of questions now from students. Expecting JSTOR to be (at least mostly) full text as it has always been, these students will log in upon accessing the database (if they are off campus). When they find one of these “access options” articles in JSTOR, they will try logging in again, then, when that doesn’t work, they will look for our institution in the list of Athens/Shibboleth institutions. Then, if it’s an article they really want, they will call or IM the library and explain that JSTOR is asking them for a login, which will be a troubleshooting struggle as this usually only happens when students try to access JSTOR from Google or Google Scholar. In the worst-case scenario, they will waste their money on content we already purchase elsewhere. In an even worse worst-case scenario, they will abandon JSTOR as another confusing and misleading library website and turn to other sources. Students are not terribly likely to purchase individual articles – they are more likely to move on and try to find something that is full text, even if it is less relevant. This may turn out to be a boon to EBSCO, but it’s going to frustrating as hell for libraries, and could turn sour for JSTOR.

JSTOR apologists will no doubt point out that individual users can change their limiter options on the initial search screen and search only content that will give them full-text results in JSTOR. But they will only do this if they understand what “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content” mean and, despite the explanatory text linked to the latter, I am not even entirely sure what these mean. Is “content I can access” just my institution’s JSTOR modules, or does it include “current issues” links for titles in my institution’s JSTOR modules, and, if so, are all of these indeed titles I have full-text access to through my institution’s current subscriptions? Good question. Do the “links to external content” mean just current issues and, if so, are they current issues for just titles in my library’s JSTOR modules, or for those in all JSTOR modules? I have made notes to ask JSTOR these questions when they get back to me about why the heck my openURL button doesn’t appear in results with the other “access options” for articles outside our JSTOR modules, but most users don’t even realize JSTOR has modules, and likely will not be able to understand what these two limiters mean, even after they’ve done a search.

So, what is JSTOR thinking? It seems like they are trying to move the archive towards being an expanded content platform in order to become an expanded platform for discovery, but have skipped some vital steps along the way. Let’s not forget, JSTOR has no administrative module, it has certainly not fully implemented openURL (as this platform upgrade shows), and though it does offer COUNTER Journal reports, it still offers no COUNTER-compliant statistics for sessions and searches.


I think Amy has nailed it by describing this as a fundamental shift from journal archive to “discovery platform.” I don’t know how your users will respond, but I predict mine will be confused and unhappy – at least until they get the hang of manually selecting “content I can access” every time they search. (There is no option for libraries to set that as a default.) Much as I respect JSTOR, I’m not looking forward to the questions we’ll be getting.

What do you think?

Illustration courtesy of autumn_bliss.

Let’s Not (Just) Do the Numbers

Meredith Farkas has a thoughtful post at Information Wants to be Free on our love of numbers and how little they tell us without context. Less traffic at the reference desk: what does that mean? It could mean that students don’t find the help they get there useful, or that your redesigned website or new signage has solved problems that used to require human intervention. More instruction sessions? Maybe more faculty attended conferences and needed a babysitter.

Meredith’s post made me think about the statistics I recently compiled for our annual report. Many of them are things we count in order to share that information with others through national surveys. We dutifully count how much microfiche and microfilm we have added to the collection (seriously?) and how many print periodicals we have (fewer all the time, but our growing access to electronic full text is virtually impossible to measure; does a title that has a 12 month embargo count?). We haven’t used this report to share how much use our databases are getting and which journals in those databases are getting downloaded most often, or what Google Analytics tells us about which web pages attract the most attention. We use that information for decision-making, but it doesn’t become part of the record because the time series we use was started back when the earth’s crust was still cooling. (Guess what: acquisition of papyrus scrolls, clay tablets and wax cylinders is way down.)

In the end, I’m not all that interested in the numbers. The really interesting data is usually the hardest to gather. How do students decide which sources to use, and does their ability to make good choices improve over time? When they read a news item that someone has posted to Facebook, are they better prepared after our sessions to determine whether it’s accurate? Do students who figured out how to use their college library transfer those skills to unfamiliar settings after they graduate? Do students grow in their ability to reason based on evidence? Have they developed a respect for arguments that arrive at conclusions with information that isn’t cherry-picked or taken out of context? Can they make decisions quickly without neglecting to check the facts? The kind of literacy we’re hoping to foster goes far beyond being able to write a term paper. And knowing how many microfiche we own doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Now I have a question for our readers. Are there ways you regularly assess the kinds of deep learning that we hope to encourage? What measures of learning, direct and indirect, do you use at your library? Have you conducted studies that have had an impact on your programs? Are you gathering statistics that seem particularly pointless? Should we start an Awful Library Statistics blog? The floor is open for comments.

photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds.

Reading Between the Assignment’s Lines

Project Information Literacy has a new study out that complements their earlier work. In the new study, PIL researchers collected and examined research assignment prompts to see how they guide students toward good sources, and discovered that … they don’t. That is, the assignments tend to be fairly specific about the surface features of what the finished product should look like, but offer little guidance on how to find and make choices among sources or what this kind of assignment is intended to achieve.

Another piece of the project involved interviewing faculty to tease out some of the thinking behind them, to see how faculty supplement assignment prompts with in-class instruction, and what issues they see students struggle with. While it was clear in the interviews that faculty are frustrated by students’ lack of preparation, and that they spend lots of time explaining how to carry out the task, the assignments themselves don’t address the problem.

PIL’s previous study of student experiences found that virtually all students use the Internet in their research, but very nearly all of them also use library databases. Not so many used books in their research. In contrast, of the assignment prompts analyzed in the study, 60% required or encouraged use of materials on the shelves in the library, 43% suggested that students use library databases (though few specified which ones would be most useful), and 26% suggested students might find good sources through the Web. Fifteen percent discouraged or forbade the use of Internet sources, and 10% specifically forbade the use of Wikipedia. The authors seem correct to describe the approach to research laid out in these assignments as “tradition bound” – not just in terms of where students were likely to find the appropriate sources, but in that 83% of the assignments asked students to write traditional research papers. (When collecting these prompts, the researchers asked for assignments that asked students to find and use sources; they didn’t ask for research paper assignments, but that seems to be the primary way faculty engage students in using sources.)

One final intriguing connection between the report on student practices and on assignments: few students turned to librarians for help with their research, though they did look to their teachers for guidance. And though the majority of assignments recommended students use print resources in the library, very few of them suggested consulting with a librarian.

Here’s the abstract:

A report of findings from a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts distributed to undergraduates on 28 college campuses across the U.S., as part of Project Information Literacy. A majority of handouts in the sample emphasized standards about the mechanics of compiling college research papers, more so than guiding students to finding and using sources for research. Most frequently, handouts advised students to use their campus library shelves and/or online library sources when conducting research for assignments, though most handouts lacked specific details about which of he library’s hundreds of databases to search. Few handouts advised students about using Internet sources, even though many of today’s students almost always integrate the Web into their research activities. Very few handouts recommended consulting a librarian about research assignments. Details about evaluating information, plagiarism, and instructor availability appeared in only a minority of the handouts analyzed. The findings suggest that handouts for academic research assignments provide students with more how-to procedures and conventions for preparing a final product for submission, than guidance about conducting research and finding and using information in the digital age.

There’s also a short video summarizing the results available as well as an interview with Andrea Lunsford, the goddess of writing instruction and a principal investigator behind the massive Stanford Study of Writing.

Note: edited to correct a few numbers that I’d reported incorrectly. (D’oh!)

photo courtesy of monica, nic