Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book people v. article people

I am definitely a book person. When I want to learn about something, I want to read hundreds of pages about it. I have a half dozen books on copyright, more than a dozen about the social "questions" around the Internet, a handful on the Semantic Web, two shelves of books on libraries (history, cataloging, theory of knowledge organization), and now four books on cognitive science and the theories around concepts.

I've done work with people who are definitely "article people." Mostly academics, these folks rarely delve into a book since their scholarly conversation takes place in articles published in journals. My guess is that once you reach the level of knowledge that these folks possess, the breadth of a book contains nothing new and all of the interesting stuff comes out in article-sized chunks.

I also like to follow-up on my reading. When a bit of reading focuses around a place, like Bletchley Park or Los Alamos (as recent books on computer history do) I have to find them on a map. Concepts mentioned but not covered in detail require a visit to Wikipedia. I hunt down works cited in particularly intriguing passages. And it is in the midst of this last activity that I run into perhaps a hint about my attraction to books.

Because I am "unaffiliated" with an institute of higher education, it is easier for me to obtain books than to obtain articles. Books are available used or new in an open marketplace, and I find it to be rare that there is reference to a book that I cannot get at what seems to me to be a reasonable rate. But when I look up an article that I might be interested in, I often get something like:

Yes, Wiley asks for $29.95 for an article, and JSTOR asks $38.00. I have seen these prices on articles as short as six pages. These prices are for the download of a PDF file, not an offprint to be delivered by express mail. I can only assume that they have no desire to sell access to individual articles, because the pricing is so out of whack with retail publishing. Remember, these are academic articles that quite frankly haven't a large audience. But they already exist in PDF and are available to members of subscribing institutions. In a world of $.99 pop songs and $9.99 best-selling e-books, these prices are just absurd.

One of the books I am reading at the moment is a compilation of essays called "Concepts: core readings." At least five of the essays were previously published in journals and when I looked them up the download price was $39.95 each. That's  about $200 for 100 pages of a 650-page book that retails for $55.

If we want "equal access to information," as we often claim we librarians do, then we need to do something about journal article pricing. I'd be quite willing to pay $2-$4 for an article, but the $30-$40 price range is ridiculous. I'm sure that these journal companies sell very few, if any, full-price articles. As we've seen with other media, when the price is right, it becomes as convenient to pay the price as it is to bother to pirate the materials (which in my case means borrowing someone's academic identity). Surely selling zero articles at $39.95 isn't better than selling a handful of articles at $2 each.

It's great that JSTOR is now offering some articles for free (although I have yet to be able to create an account since their site just hangs when I try), and I wouldn't suggest that JSTOR should be providing an entirely free service, since they have expenses. But $38 for an article is not just too much, it is prohibitive, and it unnecessarily creates an inequality of access. Someone needs to do to the journal publishers what Apple did to the music industry: show them the money.


Ben said...

We actually know just how much Jstor makes from articles sales from their tax forms: $165,000 in 2010, which works out to 0.3% of the parent corporations revenue, or about 8.6 thousand articles a year. So it's really not a major part of their business model.

Karen Coyle said...

Thanks, Ben. I had forgotten that JSTOR, as a non-profit, would have a 990.

The question then becomes: would there be a cost to JSTOR if they sold 80 thousand articles a year with a revenue of $165K? or would it be a wash? If the latter, then reducing the price on articles is a gain for humanity.

Anonymous said...

This is a case study in why open access needs to be more widespread. So how are you accessing articles like this one? Did you try contacting the author?

Karen Coyle said...

I don't know what you mean by "like this one", but in terms of contacting the author -- in nearly all cases, the journal, not the author, holds the copyright. In fact, there are articles that I have written that I myself do not have access to and therefore couldn't send to someone. Authors used to get some number (10 or 20) printed off-prints, but that practice has ended.

A search in Google Scholar often will turn up a pre-print or even a pirated version of the article, at least for recent publications. The hardest ones to find are the pre-Internet articles, which will only exist digitally if they have been scanned, such as by JSTOR.

Ben said...

For some reason, I find find myself reading Ithaka's 990 every few months. All sorts of fun facts in there.

Given that the revenue from pay-per-view is so small, I think the revenues from it are probably unimportant compared to the other incentives keeping it place. Would Mellon (or someone else) be willing to pay 165K a year to let JStor simply give away content to non-university researchers? I bet they would. But then libraries would unsubscribe.

The current price seems to be set where it is to ensure no library will ever think of using pay-per-view instead of bulk subscribing; it's there so they can say anyone can access, but not to actually maximize use.

A better system would probably be one where a few universities with did opt to go pay-per-view instead of subscription package. But JStor seems to really want to keep the subscription model going.

The only advantage I can think of to the current system is that probably the only people paying $30 for an article work at law firms. And it's good to be able to gouge them. But when the revenues are _this_ low, clearly that's not working.

Geoffrey said...

A few years back I was able to access JSTOR articles on my laptop with wireless internet at my public library. That might not be enough to get all of the articles you want, but it will be more than nothing, or for less than $40 a shot.

Karen Coyle said...

Geoffrey, some public libraries do subscribe to JSTOR. Mine, unfortunately, does not. I would be interested to see stats on how many public libraries have particular journal databases and from that determine the overall publication coverage for this data. Has anyone this already?

Ben, your observation about libraries going to "pay per view" is an interesting one. In my experience libraries try to avoid the PPV model because they have fixed budgets and have to allocate a specific amount to the database access. If they exceed that 6 months into their budget year, they are SOL. We went through this when DIALOG was a dial-up database (and very expensive): some libraries offered "free" access, which only lasted a short while because they reached their funding limit. However, if the charges are very small, and if the library doesn't advertise this offer too widely, you may be on to something.

Jennifer in Kansas said...

Re the pay-per-view model, there are folks who believe, based upon the usage statistics for an institution, that they can better afford the per-view cost than the sometimes 10's of thousands they pay for access to a lengthy list of journals no one ever accesses. Ah, the big package! It is under consideration at my institution - if implemented we will see what comes out in the wash!