At a recent Open Access Futures presentation, speaker Rick Anderson noted that the music industry has moved from selling CDs to selling individual songs and he wondered whether academic journals might do the same. In other words, what if libraries one day stopped subscribing to scholarly journals but instead bought individual articles one at a time, in response to immediate needs by researchers?
Librarians can imagine such a scenario if they consider that we not only provide information to researchers but try to do it in the most cost-effective manner. Because many scholarly journals today publish a significant quantity of papers which are not likely to be read, it would make sense in some cases to purchase journal articles “by-the-drink” rather than by annual subscription1. This on-demand availability of articles might soften resistance to subscription cancellations which budgets increasingly require.
But taken too far, this approach could potentially backfire. If enough libraries cancelled subscriptions in favor of article-by-article purchasing, publishers would need to reconsider the price they charge for individual papers given that most articles would probably not generate any revenue in the short term. They might have to charge much higher prices for each article to cover the cost of publishing the others for which there is no demand. In other words, if a journal’s only revenue came from individual articles sales, and if most published articles are not read by anyone (at least not within the expected revenue cycle of most publishers) the costs of publishing all papers would have to be covered by the minority which are purchased.
One might imagine a scenario where publishers might try to guess the market and start rejecting manuscripts they feel will not generate enough sales in the same way a book publisher declines book manuscripts based on a lack of market appeal. Although some journals today consider the level of interest in a topic when deciding whether to accept a manuscript, scholar-authors would likely object to the acceptance/rejection decision being based on dollars and cents.
It is worth noting that university scholars who are presented with specific library subscriptions to be cancelled sometimes argue against the decision not because of the loss of reading material but because the journal in question is one where they publish regularly. This may strike librarians as odd since we traditionally subscribe based on expected readership–not to ensure the financial viability of a journal for scholars to publish their research.
I write all of this to re-emphasize that scholarly journal publishers serve two audiences: readers by providing articles and authors by providing a place for their research output. And that authors in many cases make up a larger client base than readers. Were we to purchase articles rather than annual subscriptions, we might find out that many papers are published as a service to authors rather than with potential readers in mind.
Of course this model of library acquisition ignores the archival role that libraries play for many journals. It may be that most articles published today aren’t read or cited in the years immediately after release, but who knows what papers might be discovered after 50 or 100 years of relative obscurity. That’s one service for which libraries are highly valued.
1This mirrors the just-in-time manufacturing philosophy which Japanese auto companies introduced to great efficiency several decades ago.