Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1998

Ruminations on the Sci-Tech Serials Crisis

Emily R. Mobley
Dean of Libraries and Esther Ellis Norton Distinguished Professor of Library Science
Purdue University


Commercial sci-tech publishers have been identified as the villains in the serials crisis.  However, dispassionate observations over a number of years would suggest that the current crisis is a result of many villains including the accusers themselves.  The situation did not arise solely as a result of changing pricing policies of the last few years.  The "sins of the past" coupled with the myopia of not looking outside the ivied walls of academe provided the foundation for the current crisis.  The interaction of the larger environment with the interrelationships between the roles each villain plays suggests solutions may not be readily achievable.


Recent discussions of serials pricing have focused on the rapacious nature of commercial publishers.  In particular, criticism has been most vociferously directed at Reed-Elsevier and others of its ilk.  It is no secret that of the commercial sci-tech  publishers, Reed-Elsevier holds the distinction of being one of the most important.  Certainly from the experience of Purdue University, which is noted for its curricula and research in sci-tech disciplines, this statement has much validity.  More than 25% of the library's serials budget is invested in this one publisher although only 10% of the total serials titles are from this publisher.  Reports originating earlier from Purdue describe our focus on the deleterious impact of this publisher's pricing strategies and faculty opinions for the validity of Reed-Elsevier's rationale for price increases. 

My purpose in this article is not to focus on the issues related to this one publisher, but to focus instead on a wide range of observations on why or what has really led to the current "crisis."  It is an attempt to dispassionately review the roles of a number of events, people, and institutions which have contributed to the "crisis" either by action or inertia.  It may seem unusual emanating from a person who has recently gained a reputation for "taking on" a powerful publisher, but the truth of the matter is commercial publishers are only one set of villains in this crisis.  There are a number of others who must recognize the roles they also played.  This recognition is important because no amount of new opportunities, such as the SPARC project under the aegis of the Association of Research Libraries, will succeed unless all of the underlying reasons for what has brought us to where we are today in the serials crisis are recognized and articulated.   

This article will only introduce the issues rather than present a learned analysis with proofs.  The intent is to stimulate further discussion and introspection that may lead to future models which recognize that since the issue is not monolithic, the "correction" must entail a multi-faceted approach.  It's easy to point fingers over there instead of honestly appraising our own roles in the matter.  More complexity is added to the situation because of the interaction of the larger environment with the interrelationships between the roles of the various players. Hopefully, this will become more obvious as the discussion continues.

The Historical Perspective

The prices of sci-tech journals, as well as those covering business and economics, law, and medicine, always have been higher than other disciplines.  In 1963, the average price of chemistry and physics journals was $16.07; engineering, $6.69; mathematics, botany, geology, and general sciences, $9.58; and zoology, $9.51 while  the average price across all disciplines of titles in the U.S. Periodical Index was $6.31.  In 1968, the average price of chemistry and physics journals was $24.26; engineering, $10.02; mathematics, botany, geology, and general sciences, $15.42; and zoology, $13.49 while the average price of all titles was $8.65. Thirteen years later in 1981, the average price for chemistry and physics journals was $156.30; engineering, $54.55;, mathematics, botany, geology, and general sciences, $75.62; and zoology, $48.32 while the average price for all disciplines was $39.13. By 1996, another 15 years later, prices for the same sci-tech disciplines above had ballooned to $867.00; $247.72; $342.07; and $299.84 respectively, while the average price for all disciplines had reached $165.61.

A more telling statistic may be the ratio of each discipline's price to the average price across all disciplines.  In 1963, the ratio for chemistry and physics was 2.5 to 1; engineering, 1 to 1; mathematics, botany, geology, and general sciences, 1.5 to 1; and zoology, 1.5 to 1.  By 1996, these ratios were 5.2 to 1; 1.5 to 1; 2 to 1; and 1.8 to 1 for each of the respective disciplines.  On the other side of the coin, because the prices of these high-cost disciplines are reflected in the higher average costs of all titles in the U.S. Periodicals Index, one can observe what has happened to low-cost disciplines.  As an example, the ratio for history was .8 to 1 in 1963, but by 1996 that ratio had decreased to .3 to 1. 

On the surface, these statistics point out what we already know - - that significant price increases for sci-tech journals have occurred over the last 35 years and that these increases have been far greater than for other disciplines.  However, the ratios show a far different picture between the disciplines.  As an example, the price of zoology journals has remained fairly steady against average prices.  The biggest culprits, as we all know and is clearly observable, are chemistry and physics.  What was happening in these disciplines during the last 35 years to cause such substantial price increases?  Was it purely greed?  Many of the long-published prestigious journals in these disciplines are controlled by a handful of very powerful scientific societies, thus how could prices rise so dramatically?  What role may these societies have played over the years in this crisis? 

We have moved through the era of "big science", the years following the Sputnik Era when the U.S. government supported scientific endeavors with "deep pockets."  The results of the race for America to be the world's pre-eminent scientific power resulted in success but also spawned scientific publishing output at a pace from which we have yet to retreat although the environment has changed drastically.  New research fronts were developing weekly, followed closely by new journals covering those fronts.  Scientific research faculties in universities were growing along with the output of graduate students in those fields.   Research in business and industry along with research staffs and needs for graduates were rapidly growing.  The number of graduate programs grew as many colleges expanded their programs and changed into full-blown universities to take advantage of the profusion of funds available.  Traditional scientific societies could not keep up with the demand for new publication outlets.  After all, there were new faculties in universities with demands placed on them for research and publication as a condition for tenure eligibility, large numbers of new graduate students, new researchers in industry, and new research fronts.  More scientific societies arose, faculties were editing and publishing new journals under the aegis of their universities, and commercial publishers started seeing opportunities for scientific publishing.  Being connected with "big science" became glamorous.

Now fast forward to the 1970's.  The "oil crisis" engendered due to pricing changes by oil-producing nations working together through OPEC reminded America that it was not alone in the world. Likewise, Japanese automakers were ready to offer Americans the only relief available for the oil crisis -- fuel-efficient smaller autos which were not widely available from American automobile manufacturers.  America, and hence the U.S. government began to turn its attention away from its largess toward "big science" to other domestic issues.  The impending economic downturn merely hastened the turn away from the largess of the past.  American industry started through its period of downturns and downsizing, followed by mergers and acquisitions, then more downturns and down-sizing. 

During the 1980's, the hallowed halls of academe began to feel the same "pain" as industry.  Public support and dollars from state legislatures began to erode.  Social issues and decreased federal dollars for states to address these issues created a different competitive environment for higher education.  Dollars from U.S. government research coffers began to shrink, more as a result of the sheer competition between the various faculties at all the universities which were now in place and the shifting research priorities of the government than a real decrease in raw dollars.  The space program which had pumped in substantial funds during the era of "big science" was essentially dismantled and those dollars shifted elsewhere.  University administrators now facing rising costs due to all the programs, faculty, and staff added during the "gravy" days were now faced with how to pay for these sins of the past in a future with shrinking dollars. So they looked around their institutions to find places where resources could be easily reduced without making the hard decisions concerning items such as "Do we really need all of these programs?"  Thus, one of the first things to go was support for publications which faculty had been editing and producing in- house with the use of "supplemental" resources.  In stepped commercial publishers for the most viable journals.

Libraries were growing rapidly during this period to match their growing institutions.  As many colleges upgraded to universities and everyone got on the research band-wagon, so did libraries.  I remember a period during the late 60's and early 70's when I was a science librarian at an institution which essentially had been a local teacher's college and was moving to a research university.  The word "selection" as a way of collection development was, frankly, an oxymoron.  We bought everything that wasn't nailed down, then built a new building to hold it all. The growth in the number of academic libraries during these times which aspired to and/or attained status as a research library by meeting the standards of the Association of Research Libraries is further evidence of what was happening in libraries.  We suffer from the same sins of the past but perhaps feel the impact of the present more acutely.

The Role of Current Players

Commercial publishing is big business and industry.  Commercial sci-tech journal publishers are a part of this industry.  The mergers and acquisitions which have taken place and continue to occur with great frequency are but a reflection of what's happening in business and industry in general as various corporations position themselves for market share, industry penetration, and profits.  Boards of directors of  corporations now measure the success of executives by increases in the value of a corporation's stock rather than product quality, sales, or employee satisfaction.  Good products, high sales, but low increases in stock value will move a CEO out of his chair faster than sub-standard products that manage enough sales to maintain high stock value.  Its no secret that Reed-Elsevier has enjoyed high returns on it stock in past years.  Its also no secret (the information was on their web site) that Elsevier sold its consumer magazines publishing division so it  could concentrate on "higher-profit margin sci-tech journals."  It is also no secret that Reed-Elsevier has a goal of being THE dominant publisher in sci-tech journals and part of its profits was to be used for planned acquisitions to achieve this goal.  Thus, Reed- Elsevier is doing exactly right for its success as a commercial sci-tech publisher.  (Ouch, it hurts for this statement to flow from my keyboard, but I promised objectivity.) Those of us in academe are naive to believe that the Reed- Elseviers of the publishing world should be behaving differently. Dominance in a chosen market is a key strategy for success.  How a company gains that dominance is not for the faint-hearted.  I remember some years ago my love for Eagle potato chips.  The corporation was the Avis of nut products and had entered the potato chip industry as a way of increasing its overall market penetration for snack foods.  Oh, I dearly loved those potato chips.  It however had not escaped my notice that as time went on, they became harder and harder to find and when I did find them in a grocery store I often had to get down on my knees and reach far back on a shelf to get them.  Then, they disappeared completely.  I was like an addict without a fix and cursed my misfortune of living in a small town because I was sure that the potato chips could now be found only in major markets.  I did not find out what happened until sometime later when I read an article about Frito-Lay's business strategies for market dominance.  It seems that Frito-Lay keeps close tabs on its competitors through taste-tests as well as economic indicators. Frito-Lay determined that Eagle chips were superior in taste to its products (I readily concurred).  Frito-Lay also determined that there was no way it could develop a product that tasted as good nor was it willing to expend the resources to try.  So instead they developed a strategy that would use its size, vast market network, strong product placement relationships with grocery stores, and pricing discounts to drive Eagle out of the market totally.  Eagle, being a smaller company and new to the potato chip sector, could not hold on to enough market share with Frito-Lay's onslaught so chose to exit the market.  This example should be illustrative of the dastardly deeds which can and do occur in business practice.  Could something similar happen in the publishing industry?  Maybe not quite.  However, if one considers book stores as some part of the industry, then you may find some very close analogies.

Librarians need to look at the role they have played in this crisis.  Have we allowed ourselves to be placed in the role of a general attempting to wage war without an army?  Often I've heard the comment from university administrators that the serials crisis is a library problem.  No, I reply, it is a university problem.  How often do faculty ask librarians, "What are you going to do about the problem?" or "Why aren't you doing something about it?"  I take great delight in telling them, "Au contraire, it's your problem and you have a major role in the solution."  As librarians we don't publish in these journals, read them, edit them, use them in our research, nor do we sit on the editorial boards of these journals.  We act as facilitators to connect users with the journals which serve their needs.  The faculty have a unique role in that they are both creators and consumers of the products.  What a powerful position.

Faculty knowingly and without second thought give away copyright or accept very limited rights. They sit on editorial boards and either by commission or omission approve price increases or approve policies and/or operating agreements which lead to increases.  Editors and editorial boards continually increase the number of published pages because "the number of submissions require increasing the number of articles published."  When I suggest that some controls and quality improvement could be an approach, I'm reminded that the issue of publish or perish is very real and outlets must be provided so as not to negatively affect colleagues in their quest for promotion and tenure. Again, I take great delight in reminding them that faculty set the requirements for promotion and tenure and thus, it is within their power to change those requirements to account for more limited publication outlets, if that is the case.  I tell the faculty that I will be very happy to work with them, but I cannot do it for them.

Educating the faculty on the various issues should be a primary role for librarians.  "Tough love" is a good approach.  Even then, old habits die very hard.  New approaches such as the SPARC project will work only if the faculty see this as a desirable alternative, but I believe we have a very long way to go and the path is strewn with many thorns.  I consider many of the key faculty at my university to be conversant with the many issues surrounding the sci-tech serials crisis.  Yet, when I discussed our next projected payment of $10,000 for the SPARC project, they rather strongly suggested that if I had $10,000 to spare, they could think of far better uses of the money such as adding some new (to our collection) serials titles already in publication, purchasing access to more journals in electronic forms, or re-subscribing to some titles cancelled in the last university-wide serials reduction project.  Under no conditions was I to re-direct any of the serials budget to this effort.  In leading the charge to create alternatives to current practices, we must remember that we are again generals and need to assure that an army is behind us.

Scholarly societies as publishers reflect the bifurcation of their roles.  As publishers they must exercise prudent financial and business practices.  Although profits are not the motive, if publications have produced a surplus, many uses can be made of that money.  Societies exist for the "good" of the membership. Programs, publications, and services are "member driven." Publication boards as well as a society's main operating and oversight bodies consist of faculty and research leaders who question their role in the serials crisis.  It makes one wonder if it isn't a bit like asking the fox to watch the hen house. These same boards create polices which have a deleterious effect on serials prices.  How I've enjoyed asking these faculty to justify decisions concerning differential pricing of their journals for members vis-a-vis libraries, particularly when they admit that the member price for the journal does not actually cover the cost of producing the title.  Thus, library subscriptions actually provide the financial supplement for producing members' copies. 

Average price increases for sci-tech titles published by societies have been lower than increases for commercially produced titles.  However, the increases still tend to be double or triple general inflation amounts.  The practice of factoring in a substantial amount to offset cancellations is as rampant in scholarly society publishing as commercial.  What may be more noticeable is the increases tied to substantial increases in publications or pages.  It is not unusual for research libraries to have standing order arrangements for scholarly society publications.  This seemingly excessive output creates another financial crisis because if a subscriber then must drop back to selective title purchases instead of "blanket ordering," the discount is lost and individual title prices increase accordingly.

University administrators as a group have not exercised the leadership for creating necessary change to solve the serials crisis although admittedly, more are at least talking and writing about solutions.  Yet library directors continue to receive inordinate pressure from university administrators to look toward cooperative agreements and consortia as THE solution to the problem.  When administrators are reminded that the duplication of titles among libraries in a consortium are a direct result of the duplication of programs and research among the universities and hence sharing can only go so far, the silence is deafening. At the same time that we talk about looking within the institution to help effect change such as using university presses, the withdrawal of subsidies from presses by these same university administrators continues unabated.  It is hard the get university press directors to the table to consider such issues in this environment.  It is also difficult to get university press directors to help grapple with the issues when they as a group seemingly continue to be focused on the role of serials price increases and libraries reactions to these increases (e.g., decreasing the purchases of books, particularly limited interest scholarly monographs) as the reason university presses are in such dire straits.


As promised, the comments contained here are basically a series of observations and experiences which I hope will foster further thought and dialogue.  The most important point is a need for consideration of the roles that each group must play in order to effect solutions.  The pivotal role is that of the faculty. Further, it is doubtful that one solution will be the answer and a period of "chaos" must be entered into before a new or multiple new paradigms will emerge.  The only certainty is that change will occur because business as usual is no longer a viable option.


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