Market Efficiency, or, Arguing with Rick

Let’s have a little argument with Rick Anderson. His recent article from Ithaka S+R makes a lot of good points. The primary thesis is that libraries should concentrate on building up their special collections (non-commodity collections, he calls them) because that is what makes each library unique and building these collections will also result in the preservation of the widest possible selection of our intellectual record. I don’t argue with that. No sense in libraries all developing the same collection of commercially published products.

The backstory of Anderson’s thesis, however, (the backstory of all Rick’s articles) is that we live in an information-rich environment (check) and that (commodity) library collections are of declining value because so much of the information they might contain is more cheaply and readily available elsewhere. BONK!

Anderson says:

Today’s more efficient online marketplace features much lower prices and much lower barriers to personal collection-building, a pervasive full-text searching capability that makes traditional cataloging less obviously necessary, and widely distributed storage and access points that undermine traditional approaches to preservation and curation. (p. 3)

Some elements of that are partly true. There is a tremendous growth in full-text searching capabilities (“pervasive,” I don’t know), the Internet generally offers many storage and access possibilities that did not exist before, and the cost of some things is lowered by the 1000-pound-gorilla-ness of Amazon e-book pricing. But here’s my point: only a fraction of the scholarly communication record is affected by these factors.

Anderson suggests (p. 2) that because it is more possible (technologically) for scholars to share articles with one another, the need for such materials to be held and distributed by libraries is diminished. Clearly, it is faster and easier for scholars to share articles with one another today than it was 40 years ago, but there is no evidence I have seen in the literature that says this amounts to a majority of uses of scholarly articles or that this kind of sharing is responsible for a decline in library access. In fact, presumably scholars could by-pass use of the library copy in only three situations: for articles they wrote themselves (easily shared with others), for articles from journals for which they hold a personal subscription (easily accomplished but of dubious copyright and ethical status), or for articles that are freely available in an open repository (the sense of sharing in that case is not quite an accurate representation). It is implausible, in the first instance, that EVERY use of a scholarly article would be mediated by the author of the article. If that were true, the need for scholarly journals would cease to exist altogether. In truth, a great deal of sharing within the scholar community is accomplished, I would suggest, from downloading PDF files from library holdings. Obviously, the open access movement plays a significant role in the enhanced sharing of publications outside the commodity environment, but does anyone believe this is now the primary way scholars share information? The continued promotion/tenure scramble to be published in “top-tier” journals suggests otherwise.

The idea of lower cost and lower barriers to personal collection-building being the drivers of diminished library use (or at least relevance) certainly warrants study, but I don’t think it has been demonstrated and I doubt it would hold up under careful analysis. Do scholars today personally buy a greater percentage of the resources they use compared with scholars of the past? Perhaps marginally. Are scholars acting as intelligent consumers in the scholarly communication marketplace, finding the lowest price in all instances? Doubtful. At any rate, if they were behaving in that way, a free library copy would always be the best option. Interlibrary loan anyone?

The cost of almost all scholarly publications have, in fact, continued to go up relentlessly. Journal subscription prices outstrip the CPI every year. Even purchase-by-the-article services tend to run in the $25 to $50 range per article. Scholarly monographs are rarely cheaper than $50 per title. The existence of efficient distribution channels and digital options have not changed that very much. As an example, here are a couple of items my acquisitions team has dealt with recently:

  • Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard University Press, 2013. We paid $33.24 through our regular academic book vendor. The hardcover edition is listed on Amazon at $35.67. There are 11 used copies listed there as well. None is cheaper than $34.50. There is a Kindle edition available at $31.16. No great savings in any case. What may make the Kindle version appealing is the instantaneous access rather than the price, but Kindle would not serve every user need.
  • Guidelines for Chemical Process Quantitative Risk Analysis. American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2000. Again our vendor is selling it for $254. Amazon lists it at $190. Used copies are more expensive than that. It doesn’t exist in the commercial, individual-user e-book market. Knovel offers it through a subject package and several other library platforms have it at $254 or more. This is content that some of our users really want, but they are unwilling to pay $200 for it themselves.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson (Landmarks of the American Mosaic). Greenwood Publishing, 2012. $58 from our vendor, $37 from Amazon, $35 for a Kindle edition, $32 for a used copy. Some savings over our commodity-priced version, but not much. This is the kind of semi-academic title that might serve student needs very well, but they wouldn’t want to pay $30 for the right to quote a few lines. (Although that IS a use some students might find for the Google Books edition, provided that the appropriate snippet could be found in the limited-preview.) Faculty might be interested in using the book as a teaching text, but it probably wouldn’t serve their research interests. Few would pay for it themselves. Thus, the savings through Amazon is still not that appealing.

Let’s face it, the nature of library collections and collection use is changing due to an expanded digital infrastructure, but scholars and students continue to rely for the most part on the same kinds of resources: scholarly journal articles, scholarly monographs, and reference resources. The fact that these are available digitally and in a piecemeal fashion does not change their overall cost or make them more collectible by individuals. Their pricing, I suspect, still puts them beyond the reach of most users. But I’d be willing to be proven wrong. The mere existence of Amazon and e-book readers or Google and its Books and Scholar platforms does not necessarily demonstrate that these are the causes of declining library use or expanded information-consuming power for users. I’m not sure correlation is evident, let along causation. I think we need a lot more ethnographic studies of user behavior and its subsequent impact on scholarly publishing before we can make those kinds of assertions. But I’m totally on board with asserting that we should expend more effort and money on developing locally relevant special collections. Go for it.



One Comment on “Market Efficiency, or, Arguing with Rick”

  1. Lots of other interesting responses to what’s being hashtagged #lovegate. LOL!

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