Elsevier bought SSRN to increase its profits, plain and simple

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This week Elsevier and the Social Science Research Network announced that Elsevier purchased SSRN.  SSRN is one of the largest open access scholarly services in the world, serving especially the fields of economics, law and accounting.

To forecast what Elsevier might do with SSRN (and the impact on “green” open access as a strategy for reducing the market power and pricing of the monopoly for-profit publishers), we should start with fundamentals (and only forecast in high-level, abstract terms — there are a gazillion specific paths Elsevier might follow over the years, and we don’t accomplish much by speculating about the details).

Elsevier is a shareholder company.  That means management has a legal, fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder value, which is a synonym for maximizing profits.  NOTHING in Elsevier’s mission is to benefit society, or the participants in the scholarly communications world (authors, readers, libraries, etc).  To the extent Elsevier (or any for-profit company) does good things for participants, it is solely derivative from its prime objective: profit maximization.  (I am not making a moral judgment.  This is the social contract in capitalist economies, and indeed, if Elsevier management doesn’t do this, it can be sued by its shareholders, and shareholder lawsuits against managements that don’t maximize shareholder value succeed regularly.)

So, e.g., if Elsevier provides a better product, it might be able to extract more profits, and so we might see better products over time.  (But not necessarily, and hence not all participant-desired improvements: the cost of creating the improvements might exceed the additional revenues Elsevier can extract, so the improvement won’t increase profits, and thus Elsevier won’t implement it. This might be because the costs of the improvements are high, but it also might be that the costs are low relative to the value to consumers, but the extra value to participants might be hard to extract — perhaps because competitors can easily imitate the improvement — and then we don’t get improvements that have social value greater than their cost, because they aren’t profitable.)  If Elsevier says it intends to operate SSRN in order to benefit users…it’s not telling the truth.  (Sorry.)  It may believe that it’s use of SSRN to increase profits will benefit users — and it may — but benefitting users is not Elsevier’s goal.

Elsevier has a variety of assets at its disposal.  Its leadership has the job to deploy those assets in the way that maximizes profits.  Some of those assets are human capital (smart, experienced people), some are its ownership of millions of copyrights on scholarly content, some are its patents and copyrights on its own platform software, etc.  And now one of those assets is SSRN.  Elsevier gave Mike Jensen a chunk of money because they think that they can use SSRN in a way to increase its own profits by even more than it paid Jensen.  SSRN already sells premium subscriptions to libraries and others.  Maybe Elsevier thinks it can pump up this revenue stream (raise prices, put more of SSRN value under subscription licensing) — they say this isn’t what they’re going to do, and I tend to believe them on this, not because they are looking out for the authors and readers, but because I don’t think the SSRN pre-print platform has a lot more value that can be extracted through subscriptions.

Instead, I expect that Elsevier expects to leverage SSRN as a key part of the scholarly communications system in some major social science fields (especially economics, law and accounting) to extract value from us in other ways. Perhaps data mining that enables Elsevier to raise its journal prices.  Perhaps degrading the quality of service that SSRN provides so that scholars can’t rely on it as much, and Elsevier can raise its journal prices.  Perhaps creating greater lock-in to the Elsevier platform so that authors find it harder to switch to competing alternatives for publishing their work than they already do…enabling Elsevier to raise its journal prices.

Etc.  One thing the legal and economic fundamentals tell us is clear and simple: Elsevier bought SSRN because it expects to be able to use this asset in a way that will result in higher profits than if it hadn’t purchased SSRN.  And because Elsevier has substantial market power — that is, it is not constrained to offer competitive prices — higher profits for Elsevier means more value extracted from authors, readers, libraries, universities, government agencies.  We can’t be sure through what mechanism Elsevier expects to increase its profits — at our expense — but we can be sure that this is the sole reason it purchased SSRN, and that Elsevier will integrate and operate SSRN in a manner that best advances its mission to increase its profits.

[Small edit 19may16 to correct grammatical error.]

Economic thoughts about “gold” open access

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There is increasing support in the scholarly communications community for “flipping” the standard journal publishing model from subscription-based to “gold” open access, which is to say a system supported by pre-publication fees (article processing charges or APCs), rather than post-publication fees (subscriptions), and in which there is free (unpaid) access to the published articles.[1]

The increasing support is especially strong in Europe, as illustrated by the recent signing of the “Expression of Interest in the Large-scale Implementation of Open Access to Scholarly Journals” which came out of the Berlin 12 Open Access Conference, sponsored by the Max Planck Society. As of this writing, 44 institutions have signed on to the EoI.

A number of my colleagues in US academic research libraries have expressed skepticism or downright opposition. And recently the Advocacy and Policy Committee of the Association of Research Libraries has circulated a one-sided briefing paper in advance of a discussion during the spring ARL business meeting on 27 January. (I say “one-sided” because support of gold OA was presented, tepidly, in just nine words — “the overall aim of this initiative is highly laudable” — followed by nearly a page of single spaced “concerns and criticisms”.)

I think critics of the Expression of Interest are jumping to unfounded and incorrect conclusions, and that organizing opposition to the EoI may greatly hinder a very promising effort to radically transform the scholarly publishing ecosystem much sooner and more effectively than other efforts (notably the “green” OA movement). I’ll offer a few observations here, written from my perspective as an economist. (See Caveat below.[2]) For this article I’m going to assume that open access is a good thing overall.

I first present a summary, followed by a considerably longer statement of my arguments.

Summary

Many decision makers and influencers — particularly in the research library community in the US — are expressing opposition to gold OA for reasons that I think are unsupported by either facts or simple economic principles.

  1. Will gold OA further strengthen the monopoly scholarly publishing firms? No. In fact, it is likely the most realistic path towards reducing or eliminating their market power.
  2. Will there be a change in the current market model? Yes. By engaging authors in the economic decision about where to publish, we will create article-level (submission) price competition between journals and publishers.
  3. Will research-production-intensive institutions be made worse off? No. The costs of scholarly communications (primarily subscriptions) are generally paid (mostly indirectly) by research funders today. Those total payments for scholarly communications will be less in a predominantly gold OA world. The research funders can and will redirect funds to where the costs are paid, raising reimbursements to those institutions whose costs go up (because they are paying for a disproportionate share of APCs) and reducing them to those whose costs go down (because they are saving more through the elimination of subscription payments than they are paying in APCs).
  4. Will gold OA hurt under-resourced institutions (such as those in the “global south”)? No. First, because they generally publish less per employee than better-resourced institutions, at first blush we should if anything expect them to benefit: they’ll save more in eliminated subscription costs than they will pay in APCs. At worst, since research funders routinely adjust research direct and indirect payments as costs change, under-resourced institutions might not get to keep the savings, but they won’t be made worse off. (And any current subsidies to reduce their subscription costs can simply be re-directed to be APC subsidies.)
  5. Will flipping to gold OA take too long and cost too much? Given our experience to date with green OA, and the fundamental problems with getting to effective, universal green OA sufficient to bring subscription prices to competitive levels, flipping to gold OA probably can happen much sooner. And though the transition may be somewhat costly, those costs will be moderated increasingly by negotiated offsets. And some transitional investment is justified by the great social benefits that will follow from open access and competitive rather than monopolistic prices for scholarly communications.

Will flipping to open access strengthen the monopolized scholarly publishing industry?

To address this let me say a few words about the market structure of the current industry. “Monopoly” generally means “a single seller”, yet there are many scholarly publishers (some for profit, some not-for profit; some with many titles, many with just one or a few titles). Nonetheless, it is reasonable, for short hand, to say that scholarly publishing is monopolized.

First, research output (e.g., articles) is what we economists call a differentiated good: one article is not a perfect — or often even good — substitute for another. If articles were perfect substitutes, then if one among several publishers, if one tried to charge an above-competitive article price (to first order, the average cost of reviewing, editing, reproducing and distributing it), readers would switch to a different provider who competed by offering a lower price, with the competition maintaining low, competitive prices — as we see for corn flakes, for example. But since articles are (often quite) imperfect substitutes, when one publisher charges above-competitive prices, readers don’t simply switch to a different article from a competing publisher. There will be some limit to how much readers (or their agents, such as libraries) will pay, but it will be well above the low incremental cost of an article.

Thus, articles that people want to read have scarcity value — you can only get them from one publisher, generally (this is why publishers care so much about obtaining and protecting copyrights). Whoever has copyright on an article that readers want to read can charge a scarcity rent (price > cost).

The market for publishing has evolved so that a small number of organizations control copyright on the most valuable articles (e.g., Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, the American Chemical Society). They are able to charge prices well above incremental and average cost, so they are are earning above-competitive profit margins. In recent years the profit margins of the largest for-profit scholarly publishers have been around 35% or higher; a competitive, risk-adjusted profit margin is probably closer to about 10%. (See Caveat below.[2]) So, on the order of 25% of what we’re paying is not for the cost of publishing value added, but for excess (above-competitive, or monopolistic) profit.

Back to “flipping”. People concerned about the Expression of Interest or other discussions of “gold” OA almost always assert that we will simply be reinforcing, even strengthening the publishing monopoly.

I am unaware of any cogent economic argument that leads to this conclusion.

To strengthen the existing monopolists, something about the APC (article processing charge) model for paying the costs of publishing (instead of subscription) charges would need to raise the barriers to competition: that is, to give the existing firms increased market power. I don’t see anything about gold OA that does this. It may leave market power unchanged (I don’t think so; see below).

But I don’t see any way in which it increases market power. The primary sources of market power for the large monopoly publishers are three:

  1. They have journals that have a reputation for prestige, and so authors want to submit their articles to be published in those journals, rather than in journals published by less monopolistic organizations.
  2. They have many such journals, which they can sell in “big deal” bundles that make it very difficult for purchasers (mostly libraries) to put competitive pressure on the publishers by dropping subscriptions to their weaker journals (that is, those for which there are reasonably good substitutes).
  3. (This is a big one, and will come back below.) The decision to commit resources to purchase a journal is for the most part made by someone different (usually a librarian) than the decision about where to submit an article for publication (made by the author). Even if authors realize in the abstract that by submitting to publishers that charge monopoly prices they are reinforcing the power those publishers have, which results in their university or research lab having to spend too much on subscriptions, we have a classic collective action problem: the decision of each individual author about where to publish does not directly affect the amount the author’s institution spends on subscriptions, but does affect his or her readership and prestige, so authors (for the most part) quite rationally ignore the monopoly power of the publishers to whom they submit.

Changing to a funding model in which (monopolistic) publishers get paid in the form of pre-publication APCs rather than post-publication subscription payments does not change the first two sources of market power in any way I can see. It may change the third source of market power, but in a way that weakens, not strengthens the monopolies. (I’ll discuss this below).

So why do librarians (and others) fear that flipping to gold OA will increase the power of the monopoly publishers? The only reason that might make sense is that they think there is an alternative path in the future — neither the current market structure, nor gold OA — that will be more competitive than either, and thus that committing to gold OA means we lose the opportunity for something better.

What might that better world be? The only model that I see actively discussed is “green OA”: a model in which the current publishing model continues, but in parallel authors submit the article to an open access repository (typically with an embargo period). Funding agencies in the US have been driving towards this model, with NIH being the most aggressive to date. As a result, most recently published biomedical articles are now made available through PubMed Central, though typically with a six to twelve month lag.

Is the green OA model going to reduce market power (more than gold OA might, see below)? I haven’t seen any research evidence to date suggesting that it has yet (green advocate Stevan Harnad agrees, “no evidence yet of … subscription cancellations … even in fields where it has already attained 100% Green OA for more than two decades”). The pressure on publisher prices would be this: if enough readers were willing to wait the six to twelve embargo months for access, enough subscribers might start cancelling their subscriptions, inducing publishers to lower prices. We’d expect to see this first and strongest among publishers of biomedical journals, since the most successful green OA effort to date is PubMed Central. I haven’t seen a slow-down in the above-inflationary rate of price increase in biomedical journals (much less a decrease in prices, towards competitive levels; see Caveat below[2]).

There are serious limitations on the green OA model, and its ability to create this hypothetical pressure on publishers to lower prices.

  1. It needs to be adopted aggressively by government funding agencies in most or all major research producing countries, if enough content is to be available in green OA to create enough subscription-cancellation risk to force publishers to lower prices.
  2. Author deposit compliance must be high, again, for enough content to be available. Experience to date is that voluntary author submission to OA repositories is very low, and that stands to reason: it’s an extra work-flow for them, on top of the already time-consuming and irritating journal submission process. The exception to low compliance rates is in biomedical, with the difference being that NIH (alone among US funding agencies, I believe) enforces deposit by holding up subsequent funding if an author has not deposited previously-funded research outputs into PubMed Central. But…
  3. Even if all funding agencies (in all research-producing countries) implemented an NIH-like policy with enforcement, much scholarly output is not directly tied to extramural funding. The very strong and specific dependence of identifiable biomedical projects on specific grants makes this model work in that set of disciplines. It would be very difficult to use this compliance enforcement mechanism in many other fields where the link between grant and article is much less clear. Even more so because many scholars in social sciences and humanities (in particular) are not continuously funded, so threatening to withhold the next grant may not have much effect. Indeed, much research receives no extramural funding at all.

I’m not against green OA where it is reasonably efficient. But I think we’ve been trying it long enough now that we can see plenty of (informal) evidence that it is not going to be effective for much scholarly research.[2] And I don’t see any evidence yet that it will reduce publisher market power enough to lower prices even where it is effective.

How might gold OA reduce market power?

Gold OA doesn’t increase the power of the dominant publishers: they are already extracting profit-maximizing monopoly revenues from us, and switching to gold won’t increase the amount they extract. And articles will be available open access to everyone. So we’ll be better off than we are today in the subscription world.

But I think it is likely to be better still, given some time for participants in the market to adjust. Leap ahead some years and imagine the world in which most significant journals are published gold OA, with article pre-payments and no subscription charges. And imagine that authors are at least somewhat involved in the financial decision of where to submit their articles: that is, the submission decision has an economic effect on their research budgets. While authors will still have a strong incentive to publish in high-prestige, widely-read journals, rarely is there only a single good journal suitable for a given article. In this world, authors will have an incentive to also consider the article fee price for submitting to various good journals, and will start to exert competitive pressure on publishers to lower those prices. And it is exactly that competition which has the best — indeed, I think probably the only — chance of leading us to a new market equilibrium in which the amount we spend on scholarly publishing is reduced to the resource cost — that is, the amount it takes to actually provide the peer review management, administrative, copy-editing and marketing services that publishers provide. The obscenely high monopoly profit margins will be whittled down as journals compete to attract submissions of the best articles from the best scholars.

There are some simple and lovely reasons why competition would work in a gold OA world when it doesn’t in a subscription world. The most important is that the person deciding where to submit an article will have some reason to care about the price the publisher is charging. The second is that the first two huge market power advantages I enumerated above are both deflated when journals aren’t sold by subscription. When subscription purchasing decisions are made at the level of the journal (bundle of articles) — and increasingly the “big deal” (bundle of journals) — the only possibility for competition is between journals or bundles of journals, and as I pointed out, different articles published in different journals are not very good substitutes for each other. But in a gold OA world there is competition at the level of the article submission, and before the article is accepted for publication, multiple journals can be very good substitutes for each other (for example, an economist generally gets as much readership and prestige whether her article is published in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, or the Quarterly Journal of Economics).

This is the key: in a gold OA world with authors bearing part of the article fee, journals and publishers compete on price, not just quality.

Authors pay? How will they afford this?

Much of the concern about gold OA seems to be about authors who are not funded by research grants to pay article fees. This is “merely” a problem of the distribution of scholarly communication funds. We — society — are paying $X billions currently to sustain the scholarly communications enterprise. Gold OA doesn’t increase the resource cost of commnications: it doesn’t require that we employ more people or more servers or more kWhs of electricity. It shifts the payments from post-publication to pre-publication, but as I argued above, gold OA doesn’t increase market power, and in fact is likely the best path to decreasing market power, and so the total amount paid to publishers should, if anything, fall. So, the problem is “merely” one of getting the money from subscription budgets into APC budgets. (I keep scare quoting “merely” because I am aware that changing administrative flows of funds will take some time, but it’s an administrative problem and can be resolved — the path through which various activities often changes.)

Right now most of the money flowing to publishers is paid by research libraries, who receive their funds from their central campus budgets. For the most part, central campuses (at least in the US) receive these funds through overhead or indirect cost payments by external research funders. This flow of funds suggests one straightforward way in which funds could be re-directed in a gold OA world (there are others). First, central campuses could reduce the budgets of libraries by the amount that we save by not having to pay for journal subscriptions. Then, the central campus could provide authors with research funds to offset that part of their APCs that are not covered by research grants.[3]

I did say that to get the benefits of article submission competition we need authors to bear a meaningful share of the cost. If campuses simply reimburse them for APCs, no matter how high they are, then authors don’t have an incentive to force publishers to compete on price. So, to get competition, campuses might offer only a fixed reimbursement, equal say to a reasonable estimate of the current resource cost (not price) of publishing an article — today around, say, $2000 — and if the author wants to publish in a journal with an above-competitive (monopolistic) APC she will have to come up with additional funds herself. (An elegant alternative that may seem less harsh to authors, suggested to me by Mark McCabe via his collaborator Mackenzie Smith, is to give authors a somewhat higher amount — say, average cost plus $1000 — per article, and let the author bank the difference between that amount and the APC in a research account.)

Is gold OA bad for research-production-intensive institutions?

Some are concerned that if the costs of scholarly communications are paid through pre-publication fees those institutions that produce relatively more publishable research will be disadvantaged because they will pay more in APCs than they will save in subscriptions. It’s almost surely true that there will be some redistribution of where the funds are flowing. However, again, this is “merely” an administrative flow of funds issue and with some time our research support systems can adjust. Most of the funds supporting the costs of scholarly communications (currently mostly subscription charges) are, ultimately, coming from government funding agencies (through indirect cost payments). As the subscription expenditures of institutions that consume (subscribe) relatively more than they produce (publish) fall, indirect cost reimbursements to those institutions will (and should) decline correspondingly. And as the publication costs of institutions that produce relatively more increase, indirect cost payments (or direct cost APC payments through grants) will (and should) increase. As long as the scholarly communications industry doesn’t cost more to support (and when competition heats up in a mostly gold OA world, we will be spending less), it’s just a matter of adjusting the routing of research cost reimbursements across institutions, which is something funding agencies already address continuously.

(I am not advocating that “the rich get richer” — if publication costs go up and they are reimbursed through direct or indirect funding agency payments, institutions aren’t getting richer, they are just being held harmless. I’m not suggesting the Harvards of the world should make a profit by being given more government reimbursement than they need to pay publishing costs!)

Is gold OA bad for under-resourced institutions (e.g., those in the “global south”)?

A variant on the argument that gold OA is bad because authors can’t afford to pay APCs is that it is bad because poor institutions can’t afford to pay APCs. But the point I just made about research-producing institutions demonstrates that generally just the opposite should be true. Under-resourced institutions generally are below average in their ratio of research published to subscriptions obtained. That is, the savings to them on subscription payments should be larger than the APCs they have to pay. (If cost reimbursements are adjusted as I predict, they may not get to keep these savings, but they won’t be made worse off.)

I imagine some will argue that poor institutions, say, in the “global south”, can’t afford either subscriptions or APCs, and should get both for free. OK, that’s a fine policy recommendation, but it doesn’t change the fact that the amount of subsidy they need will be less in a pre-publication payment world (gold OA) than in a post-publication payment world (subscriptions). If publishers, or wealthier nations want to offer subscription subsidies, those subsidies could be provided to cover (the lower total amount of) APCs instead.

Will the transition to gold OA be slow and costly?

Slow? Maybe, though if most research institutions come together behind the Max Planck Society’s Expression of Interest and collaborate to negotiate with the dominant publishers, the tipping point may be near. I don’t see it as any slower than the progress of green OA has been: in fact, since gold OA requires implementation by a modest number of professional organizations (publishers), whereas universal green OA requires implementation by more or less every individual author, I think transition to universal gold is much more feasible than to universal green.

Costly? Maybe. Opponents quickly assert we’ll be paying double while the transition is occurring: paying for all of our subscriptions while publishers still require subscriptions to journals, but also paying APCs for the articles that are published by these journals on an OA basis. This fear is primarily about the so-called “hybrid” path to gold OA: that subscription journals accept and publish a subset of articles OA when the author pays an APC, but that the rest of the content in the journal is only available by subscription. (The journal-by-journal “flip” model has entire journals switching to accept only APC-paid OA articles, and thus eliminating their subscription fees.)

Some advocates for gold OA argue that libraries — especially consortia — will be able to negotiate “offsets”, that is, reducations in subscription payments to offset the amount of revenue the publishers collect in APCs. There has been some progress in this regard, for example in the UK, Austria, and the Netherlands.

I suspect that offsets will only partially cover the costs of transition to a gold OA world. Even where progress is being made, offset savings are lagging behind growing APC payments. And my economic arguments above suggest why offsets are unlikely to fully finance the costs of transition: the dominant publishers have substantial market power, and they are going to use that power to resist the transition to gold OA, trying to make sure we (research-producing institutions) find the transition to be costly.

However, it’s important to recognize that however costly the transition is (and as the consortia demanding gold OA increase in size and experience, offsets will become increasingly helpful), these are transition costs. If the resulting outcomes — open access to scholarly research, and lower prices due to competition — are good for society, then we should be willing to invest something in the transition to get there.

 


Footnotes:

This article is based on a talk I gave at a recent ACRL Workshop on Scholarly Communications, hosted at UC Berkeley on 15 April 2016.

1. Most of the discussion these days focuses on journals and articles, not monographs. I’m going to write using that terminology. But generally everything I say below applies equally to the economics of monograph publishing, as well.

3. Caveat. This is a thought piece. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to do more than casual empirical analysis to back up the empirical claims. So I mention “caveat” above in a few key places where I am making empirical claims that I believe, but which I realize could turn out to be incorrect. I’ve been following these issues long enough to be reasonably certain that there is not compelling empirical evidence to refute my claims, however.

3. Yes, I am a university librarian saying that library budgets should be cut if we no longer have to pay subscription fees for scholarly journals. Our goal as a campus library is not to maximize our budget, but to support the research and education mission of the university, and I think both will be better off if we move from libraries paying for subscriptions to authors paying for article processing charges.

 

Berkeley’s budget woes and the Library

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Though the economy is strong again, many public universities continue to see declining support, or at least not see growth commensurate with an economic boom. UC Berkeley is facing a sixth year of frozen tuition (which was already low compared to peers), hard limits on out-state enrollment, no state financing for capital projects, and new responsibility for pension costs. Here is a message I shared with our staff and external advisory boards:

“By now you most likely have heard about Chancellor Dirks’s announcement that Berkeley has a serious annual, unsustainable budget deficit. If you haven’t, here is a link to his public statement: http://goo.gl/DQCHqP. The basic fact is simple: revenues are about $150 million a year less than expenses. That’s a big gap. To address this, our Chancellor has launched the campus on a major and necessary strategic re-alignment process. He has assured us, everything is “on the table”, with a simple guiding rule: we will make choices to uphold Berkeley’s world-leading commitment to excellence and access.

What do the long-term budget shortfall and accompanying strategic re-alignment of Berkeley mean for the Library?

The first and most immediate consequence is that for the second year in a row, we have been instructed to reduce our activity by about 4%. We also had a 4% cut last year. Over the next few months we need to find quick ways to reduce activity without seriously damaging our most important contributions to Berkeley’s excellence and access (in our case, access to information).

We have a smart and resilient staff, and together we’ll manage this immediate challenge. What about the future? Because of the size of the campus annual deficit, we must anticipate further cuts in our campus funds in coming years, as well.

As I wrote to you when I started this job — just a bit over five months ago — we have tremendous opportunities in front of us. There is no better time in history to be an information professional. But the public is providing less and less support to public higher education. The implication is straightforward: we need to prioritize, aggressively.

So we are launching a strategic planning process. Our challenge in a time of opportunity is not to work our staff to exhaustion and bitterness, to try to do more with less. Rather, we have to choose the very most important things, and do those excellently well. We will engage our staff, the faculty, the students, alumni and donors to discuss what those most important things are, and then we will prioritize.

We are not starting from scratch. The Library has been facing resource challenges for over a decade, and there has been a lot of strategic thinking already. Some directions are too obvious to ignore. We may not be able to prioritize them all, but we have to discuss them.

For example, we have one of the best collections of information resources of any research library in the U.S. Books, photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, videos, audio recordings, maps, journals, pamphlets, on and on. Those resources are held in trust for the benefit of the public. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to set those treasures free? To support Berkeley’s commitment to access by providing as much universal access to our treasures as is possible? Today we can do so in a way not possible until just a few years ago. We can create high-fidelity digital representations, and once created, there is essentially zero technical cost to sharing our treasures with everyone on the planet, through free and open networks. (The only limit is time, for those resources that remain under copyright for a while still.) We have started this project, but progress has been modest. Should we commit to this moonshot, to set our treasures free?

Another example: Berkeley provides the best public college and graduate education in the world. But 21st century leaders need more than we are providing today. Whatever path through life they will follow as artist or engineer, doctor or novelist, they need to be information professionals. They were not born into the agricultural age, nor the industrial age. They were born into the information age. The big information problem facing each Berkeley student today is not the scarcity of information, but the information flood. And so every well-educated citizen needs to be their own librarian, because the quality of their life — social, cultural, economic, political — will depend on being able to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Shouldn’t we, the information professionals on campus, the librarians, be greatly increasing our efforts to educate so that every Berkeley graduate is 21st century information literate?

We know about another major opportunity: the Library provides not only information resources, and information literacy education, but very special spaces for our students and faculty to learn and engage in scholarship. In fact, we are the primary provider of public, open, shared learning space on campus. And our space is needed more than ever by our students: with soaring Berkeley rents, they are living further away, and crowding more and more people into tiny apartments. They need space on campus to study and learn. And to be the best they need modern space that support collaboration, innovation and connection: connection to information resources around the world and right on our campus, connections to other learners around the world and right on our campus. The Library’s spaces should be our campus’s best designed and best equipped hubs for connected learning.

These are big opportunities, and there are others. We will prioritize so that we can take on ambitious challenges. We have to: Berkeley’s excellence depends on the Library, and we can’t let Berkeley down. Just as Chancellor Dirks promises for campus, we, the Library promise: we will come through this strategic re-alignment stronger and better, focused more than ever on Berkeley’s commitment to excellence and access.”

We believe in free and open information, right?

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Well… I hope so.

I feel like I’ve finished the test flight on this blog — a few articles up, no major crises, a few interesting emails from readers.

Time to turn on commenting.  You can now comment on articles, and comment on comments.  Please do.  Constructively.  And yes, you need to submit comments with name and email — there are other places for public, anonymous rants, and other ways to send me private, anonymous slams.  Please express your thoughts here, honestly, AND constructively.

Picture of people throwing tomatoes at each other
“Throwing tomatoes” Photo Credit: (c) Aaron Corey, CC NC-ND 2.0

Do libraries need more shelving? Isn’t everything digital?

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The University of California system, like many research libraries, relies heavily on high-density off-site shelving.  We own and operate two facilities, one each in the north and the south of the state, which combined hold almost half of the combined physical collections of the library systems of all 10 UC campuses.

And both facilities are almost full.  We estimate that we will run out of shelving for regular volumes (we reserve some shelving for unusual sizes and types of materials, and some of that will fill a bit later) in two, perhaps three years.  This has us quite worried: an expansion will cost about $25 million (our design is modular: that’s for a one module expansion, for about 2.5-3 million volumes), and will take some time to design and build: we’re are getting close to the fail point.  Given declining state funding (including a complete cut-off of all capital funding), we are not sure where we’ll get the money or how soon.

A big part of the problem is convincing people that more shelving for print collections is a vital university need in a time of declining budgets.  After all, everything is digital now, right?

Hoo-boy.

One huge misconception we face is that digitizing our collections means we don’t need the print anymore.  For example, we are participants in the Google Books / HathiTrust project, and most of our 11 million regular volumes have been digitized.  Why not burn our print copies?

  1. For starters, about half of the collection is still in copyright.  The HathiTrust collection can be searched, full-text, to find the existence of books, but we are not allowed to let people use the digital copy (with limited exceptions, e.g., for the blind, who can listen to a text-to-voice conversion).  Decades before this need for our print copies goes away.
  2. Second, we are here not to build collections for their own sake, but to serve our faculty and students.  And many of them vastly prefer doing their work from print copies.  Those who read long monographs find it easier and their comprehension higher.  Those who need to study large images or maps, in high resolution, or who want to see side-by-side page comparisons, need the print.  And for many rare and historical documents, the materiality of the original document itself is of enormous importance for scholarship, from the marginal annotations to the construction of the volume.
  3. Next, we can have little or no confidence that we can guarantee long-term digital preservation.  Digital storage has been around a relatively short time.  In that time, formats change frequently.  Hardware and software to render digital formats changes.  Bits on storage media rot.  Keeping bits and being able to find and access them in the future requires large annual expenditures, and those expenditures are getting larger as the amount of content we want to preserve grows enormously fast.  Further, much of scholarly content currently is held on servers of for-profit companies, and we have no guarantee those companies will survive, or that they will take care to ensure that their archives of scholarly publications survive.
  4. The Google project has been very good, but it is not complete.  It does not scan fold-out pages, for example, which are in many scholarly books (maps, charts, tables).  We have discovered that sometimes they miss pages, or the quality is not readable.

So, for now, there is pretty much consensus among research scholars and librarians that we must keep print copies for preservation in all cases, and for continuing use in many cases.

We are able to moderate shelving needs somewhat by reducing the number of print copies that are stored, and we are actively engaged in de-duplication and shared print projects.  But too few copies provides a great risk of irretrievable loss or damage, so this can only (prudently) go so far.

OK, so we can’t eliminate the need for shelving.  But do we need to expand remote shelving?

Yes.

There are two very simple and compelling reasons. First, many campuses (including several of the UC campuses, like Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, etc.) were located in areas that have become extraordinarily successful — and thus expensive.  Real estate prices in Berkeley are twice that in Boston for example, and six times higher than in Champaign, IL (I compared residential real estate prices, but the differences are primarily due to underlying land prices, and campuses are located near prime residential real estate in any case). As our campuses need space for new educational and research facilities, they are — quite reasonably — requiring that more of our book shelving go off-site, to cheaper locations: the cost of fast paging and delivery is far less than the real estate savings.  Half of Berkeley’s collection is already stored off-site.  At least one of our campus library spaces is closing in the next couple of years (quite possibly more), and two of our campus libraries were recently transformed into learning spaces without standalone book collections, requiring even more moves to off-site shelving.

The second reason we need more shelving (wherever it is located) is also simple: we need to expand our print collections.  Despite our savings through de-duplication and shared print consortia, an enormous amount of new scholarly research is only published in print, still (this is especially true for foreign language publications, which account for nearly half of our new acquisitions).  And, of course, those students and scholars who demand print copies for their use, demand that of newly published materials too, even if they are available digitally.

I’m a digital guy.  My paper files are almost non-existent.  I almost always read scholarly journal articles on my screen, and for about half the books I read I use my Kindle or MacBook.  But I’m here to witness to a very serious fact facing the 21st century research library: we need more print shelving space, especially off-site shelving.

 

Communicating more effectively

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A modern research library is a sprawling, complex beast.  We develop traditional and special (rare) collections and archives; provide instructional services; license and assist all comers with using data; support research data management; provide connected learning spaces with flexible furniture and information technology resources to support students working together to discover and learn; provide streaming video service; maps and GIS tools; etc., etc.

To serve our constituency (students, faculty, and the public beyond campus) we need to let them know what we can do for them, and what resources we have for them to use.  And in this era of declining public support, we need to let potential donors know about how we help make this great university great.

So, we’re re-organizing the way we do communications, starting by hiring our first Director of Communications.  Into a new Office of Communications we’ll be pulling in many (not all) of our communicator staff who are currently scattered across units: writers, social media experts, graphics and exhibit designers, web designers, photographers etc.

If you know a talented modern communicator who wants to lead a strong group of professionals, and help make this most public-serving of campus institutions — the library — more visible and successful, please encourage her or him to apply: http://madlibbing.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Director-of-Communications-Library-job-announcement.pdf.

Building the future of scholarly resources

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We at Berkeley Library have just posted a position for an Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources, an evolution of our current AUL Collections position. I’d like to offer some thoughts about what we think leadership in scholarly resources means for a research library.

Our mission, as I see it, is to help people find, evaluate and use information resources to build a better world. We seek an AUL for Scholarly Resources to lead our efforts in three key areas that advance this mission

  1. development and management of access to scholarly resources
  2. improving practices in scholarly communication
  3. systematically assessing resources and services

Access to scholarly resources

For more than 4000 years one of the most important functions to serve our mission was to create collections. Hence, our profession is known as librarianship: we are the people who create and maintain libraries.  Building collections was critical because information was expensive to publish and distribute, and thus information resources were scarce.  We couldn’t help people find, evaluate and use information without making a collection of these scarce resources available to them.

However, the economics of information production, discovery and access have changed radically in the past 20-30 years as a consequence of the digital revolution. Now the cost to reproduce and distribute most information is vanishingly close to zero, so we are faced not with scarcity, but abundance of information resources. (NB: the cost is about zero, but that doesn’t mean the price is always close to zero: more on this below.)  Our mission really has not changed in the past 4000 years, but the role of collecting to serve this mission has greatly changed.

To keep the focus on our mission to serve people’s information needs, it is more useful for us to say that, rather than a primary focus on building collections, the critical role is providing access to resources.  We pursue a mixture of strategies to make information resources available.  For example, we establish portals and way-finding assistance to help people locate useful resources wherever they might reside.  We license access to many resources (most notably, at present, scholarly journals), without ever owning or “collecting” them.  (Indeed, in our library, about 60% of our current resources budget is spent on licenses for access to digital resources.)

This does not mean that we are no longer in the business of collecting!  Some important information resources still are scarce and expensive, and so we still need libraries to collect these.  This is especially true for resources that are still primarily produced in print format (which currently includes most scholarly monographs, particularly those published outside North America and Europe).  And, of course, rare historical resources that are in print (or other analog) formats (our “special collections”) need to be collected by institutions if they are to be available to the public in the future.  Also, for some types of learning and scholarship, print format is sufficiently more useful than digital that we need to bear the higher cost of collecting print, rather than (solely) providing digital access.  After all, our mission is to serve our users who want to use the information, not to minimize cost (though we can’t ignore the trade-offs that the higher cost of print impose on us).

Another reason we still need to collect and maintain many print resources is that the information they contain is artificially scarce and expensive because it is under copyright, so we can’t (yet) digitally reproduce and distribute it at a price that approaches the near zero cost of doing so.  For example, Berkeley is a member of the HathiTrust consortium, which has an archive containing full-text searchable digital files of nearly 14 million volumes scanned from research libraries…but less than 40% of that is in the public domain; the other 60%+ cannot be read online (by most users).

So, yes, it is still vital that we continue to collect, but that is only one role — and frankly, a decreasing one in the broader function of providing access to scholarly resources.

Thus, we need an AUL for Scholarly Resources who is ready for and enthusiastic about dealing with the vast array of resources now relevant to students and scholars, in many different analog and digital formats.

It is important to realize that the revolution is not over.  Though the fundamental science of the digital revolution is mature, the physical and social engineering of the digital world is still immature and far from complete. Formats and affordances for use are evolving.  Business models and market structures are changing.  And user adaptations and uses are changing.  Thus, we need an AUL-SR who is a lifelong learner, who is adaptable and indeed embraces change.

Transforming scholarly communications

Let me turn to the second area in which we need scholarly resource leadership: scholarly communications.  Because the economics and technology of information production and distribution are radically changing, the ecosystem in which scholars communicate their results is also radically changing.

For example, much work is widely distributed in self-published form before it is peer-reviewed and “published” by an arm’s length organization. And even for formally published communications, because the cost of reproduction and distribution is zero, the socially optimal business model is to make access universal and free to all (open access).  Of course, there are still substantial “first copy” costs, even aside from the cost of keeping the author in food and clothing (costs, for scholarly resources, that are typically paid by university or laboratory salary budgets).  First copy costs include editorial selection, peer review, copy and style editing, and providing professional publication quality.  But when costs of reproduction and distribution are zero, the socially efficient way to provide for first-copy costs is through lump-sum up-front (pre-publication) payments, not through ex post per copy pricing.  Commercial business models are adapting to these social efficiency imperatives — but painfully slowly, and until we successfully navigate this transition to open access publishing, society is paying too much, and receiving too little access to the discoveries and insights of our scientists, scholars, artists and inventors.

In addition to necessary changes in the business of scholarly communications, we need to advance changes in the formats and media through which scholars communicate.  With the collapsing costs of digital media production, scholars are no longer constrained to publish solely in traditional formats such as the monograph.  Shorter — and longer — forms are feasible. Multimedia and interactive formats are feasible.  Living documents and contemporaneous, community-annotated editions are feasible.  The effectiveness of scholarly communications will be increased as we learn to use richer and more varied forms of communication, just as our communications are improved when we improve our writing skills.

However, our social and commercial institutions — including the behaviors of change-averse (that is, human) scholars — are slow to adapt. To benefit from the potential for reduced cost and improved access and distribution, we need to push hard on changing the scholarly communications culture.

So, we seek an AUL-SR who is knowledgeable and passionate about helping Berkeley play a leadership role in transforming the scholarly communication ecosystem.

Assessment

Finally, there is something else we need. With a mission to help people find, evaluate and use resources to build a better world, we can only succeed if we are a user-centric library.  We must discover and learning about the needs of our users (and non-users, since we’d like to start serving them too).  And we need to evaluate how well we serve those needs.

This point should be obvious for a leader overseeing the expensive business of providing access to scholarly resources: we can’t buy or license or provide expert finding assistance for everything, so we need to assess user priorities and ensure we are serving those priorities well.

But assessment is more important than ever in the current era of vanishing public support for public higher education.  Leading public university systems now survive with only about 14% of their operating costs provided by public support.  If we want to continue to deliver excellent information resource support to public higher education, we have no choice but to do more with less.  This may sound like an argument for the dreaded “corporatization” of higher education, but after we step away from political sloganeering, I think it’s clear that being more efficient in how we fulfill our mission is crucial for our service to the public.  And crucial to increasing our efficiency is to do a better job of assessing our users’ needs, and evaluating ourselves on how well we are serving those needs, so we can engage in continuous improvement in our provision of service to our students, scholars and the public.

Looking forward

There has never been a greater time to be an information professional.  We in university libraries are in the business of helping students and scholars find, evaluate and use information in their quest to build a better world.  And we live in a time when we can provide vastly more access, ever better tools for evaluating information quality, and explosively improving ways of using these information riches.

An AUL for Scholarly Resources at a leading university will be able to lead our top professional teams who are helping advance how scholars communicate, and how they find, use and evaluate information.

Looking for a postdoc in software / data curation

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The UC Berkeley Library is offering a two-year post-doc for a promising applied scholar to work on software and data curation issues, possibly with a focus on social network data. We especially are interested in advancing our understanding and support for organizing, preparing, and preserving — for re-use — data from open source software projects, including the code with all of its gnarly revision and forking history, the documentation, check-in remarks and other metadata, and the communications of the social network that often is layered on top of the software development platform. Think of Github as a canonical example.

The rich history of cooperative and sometimes collaborative development is somewhat available to researchers as long as the platform remains open and supported. However, not only does that not protect these rich data for future researchers, but the data are typically not organized, encoded, marked-up or otherwise curated for re-use by scholars.

We had a post-doc open last year, through the CLIR program, but there were too few applicants to fill the handful of similar CLIR-supported positions. PLEASE let promising post-doc candidates know about this, and circulate widely to any friends and colleagues who might have candidates.

Though employed in the Library, the post-doc will be co-advised by a Berkeley faculty member (or team); depending on interest it could be someone affiliated with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, the Computer Science Department, or any number of other units. Given Berkeley’s leadership in data science, information science and computer science, this position is a wonderful opportunity.

Please employ the CLIR Postdoctoral application program to apply (http://www.clir.org/fellowships/postdoc/applicants/dc-science). Applicants seeking more information specifically about the position at UC Berkeley can get in touch with Erik Mitchell, Associate University Librarian (emitchell (at) berkeley (dot) edu).

Authors, liberate your books

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The Authors Alliance is a professional (non-profit) association of authors started by four UC Berkeley faculty.  Its mission is to “further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by assisting and representing authors who want to disseminate knowledge and products of the imagination broadly.”  It exists in part to support the interests of authors who don’t primarily depend on royalties for their livelihood, and who wish the widest readership possible for their works — characteristics that describe most academic authors, for example.

One project of the Alliance is Rights Reversion, to support authors who want to recapture their rights to works that are out-of-print or that are no longer selling many copies, by helping them re-obtain their distribution rights from publishers, after which they might release their works under an open access license (e.g., Creative Commons) and publish to an open access web portal.

This year the reversion project released a guide, Understanding Rights Reversion, and has seen several notable successes, including the public release of books by Robert Darnton, John Kingdon and Jeff Hecht.