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The elephant in the room

The phrase "the elephant in the room" was used by a librarian at 
a recent UK meeting to describe the big issues we were not 
allowed to discuss about how the current economic crisis is 
affecting scholarly communication. Representatives of all 
stakeholder groups present - including publishers - agreed that 
the economic crisis was hitting them badly, with cost-cutting 
happening across the board and hopes for growth put on hold. The 
curious feature of the conversation was that nobody present was 
able to discuss the one topic which could get us through the 
crisis and prevent the journals market collapsing, viz. the 
pricing structure for journal "big deals". Pricing can only be 
discussed in one-to-one meetings between suppliers and 
purchasers. It would be easy to blame legislators for anti-trust 
legislation and the dominance of contract law, but the legal web 
within which publishing is entwined is of our own making - and I 
include the academic community in that statement.

The importance of this failure to discuss structural and pricing 
issues is that the dominance of library budgets by "big deal" 
expenditure has the potential to bring the journal publishing 
industry to its knees in the same way as sub-prime mortgages did 
for the banking industry. It will only take a few cancellations 
of "big deals" by major institutions to make investors nervous 
about the future of companies heavily dependent upon such deals, 
and a domino effect could follow. We may be sure that there will 
be no government bail-out of the journal publishing industry. 
This scenario would not be good for any of the current 
stakeholders. The big journal publishing companies have failed to 
respond positively to the ICOLC initiative on the economic 
crisis, and the inability to discuss structural and pricing 
issues in a collaborative way is preventing solutions which have 
been of benefit in other sectors of the economy. For example, 
heavily-discounted pricing (by which I do not mean 1%) could ease 
the burden upon library budgets for one or two years until the 
overall economic situation improved. No publisher will want to be 
the first to discuss such solutions, but equallly no publisher 
will want to be the first to feel the effects of cancellations of 
its "big deals".

Fred Friend
Honorary Director Scholarly Communication UCL