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Re: Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2009

This new Ithaka report, read in conjunction with an earlier 
Ithaka  report on "University Publishing in a Digital Age" (July 
2007), leads  me to an interesting hypothesis: scientists are 
responsible for  changes in the ways both libraries and presses 
operate in  universities that may threaten job losses in the 

I mean "responsible" in a causal, not moral sense, in the way we 
often say that the bad weather was "responsible" for the closing 
of  schools. Indeed, it is easy to see what happened here as a 
prime  example of the law of unintended consequences, or even 
Murphy's  Law-just the sort of phenomenon that my college 
classmate Edward  Tenner wrote about in his best-selling Why 
Things Bite Back:  Technology and the Revenge of Unintended 
Consequences (Knopf, 1996).

Since the line of reasoning that brings me to this perhaps 
startling  conclusion is somewhat circuitous, I may need to flesh 
it out in a  longer piece, perhaps the next one I write for 
Against the Grain.  But I'll provide the bare bones of it here in 
a series of  propositions:

1)  The economic backbone of university press publishing up to 
the early 1970s was sales of hardback monographs to academic 
libraries, averaging close to 3,000 copies per title.

2)  As first documented by the classic Fry/White NSF study 
(1975), the ratio of expenditures on books compared with journals 
began to shift from 2:1 until it eventually came to be almost the 
exact opposite.

3)  The main driver of increased journal expenditures was the 
proliferation and price rises of STM journals.

4)  Less able to count on sales of hardbacks to libraries, 
presses gradually from the 1970s on began to diversify their 
lists,  hoping to capture revenues from new markets outside 

5)  This economic necessity was partly rationalized as an 
extension of presses' mission to serve the wider cultural life of 
our  society, with the publication of more trade books, including 
fiction  and poetry. Here necessity became the mother of 

6)   For their part, librarians came to realize that their role 
as suppliers of essential resources to their campus 
constituencies  was increasingly jeopardized as budgets failed to 
keep up with the  rate of journal price hikes and they were 
forced to start canceling  subscriptions.

7)  This predicament was the primary driver for the open-access 
movement, which led to the creation of SPARC and other OA 
advocacy  organizations.

8)  Again, necessity became the mother of invention as librarians 
became more outspoken evangelists for academic libraries serving 
a  wider public beyond their own campuses, including citizens 
wanting to  learn more about health issues (hence support for the 
NIH  initiative), individual scholars not having any academic 
affiliation  (that provides access to site-licensed electronic 
resources), and all  those inhabitants of underdeveloped 
countries disadvantaged by the  "digital divide."

9)  Now, notice this interesting parallelism between the 
responses of presses and libraries to their respective crises, 
both  of which are attributable to the rising costs of STM 
journals: they  both looked to justify their responses by 
emphasizing what had been a  latent but theretofore secondary 
mission to serve publics outside  academe.  But this strategy 
entailed significant risks, ultimately  for the very survival of 
presses and for the maintenance of  traditional library 
functions, as the two Ithaka reports reveal.

10)   The principal recommendation of the 2007 report was for 
presses to align their missions more closely with those of their 
parent universities. Failure to do so could lead, in tight 
budgetary  times, to a university questioning whether its press 
was really  serving a mission important to the university. I 
began worrying about  this possibility as long ago as 1991 when, 
in a talk at a plenary  session of the AAUP's annual meeting 
titled "Back to Basics:  Reflections on the Cultural Role of 
University Presses in a New Age,"  I noted the boast of then 
Rutgers press director Ken Arnold that "we  have almost stopped 
publishing the short-run monograph." The Ithaka  report of 2007 
makes it perfectly clear how dangerous a strategy this  can be 
for a press-and the recent announcement of the closure of  SMU's 
press, which concentrated mainly on publishing fiction, shows 
that the risk is very real.

11)   The 2010 report on faculty attitudes reveals that the 
"gateway" function of libraries has steadily declined, the 
"archive"  function has remained about the same in importance to 
faculty over  time, but that the library as "buyer" remains far 
and away the most  crucial function. Newer roles in supporting 
teaching and research  have gained some traction but have not 
come close to challenging the  more traditional functions in 
importance to most faculty.

12)   The irony is that the more the OA movement succeeds, the 
more the remaining primary role of library as "buyer" will erode. 
And  it seems likely that to the extent specialized search 
services  increase in importance, they will be developed along 
disciplinary  lines, perhaps by professional societies, as the 
2010 report shows  that this is the way that scholars continue to 
choose to organize  their professional lives.

13)  The report also shows that OA itself is not important to 
most  faculty, but that publishing in places that will gain the 
most  attention from their academic peers is, whether OA or TA. 
The fact  remains that the vast majority of research scholars 
have ready access  to the best TA journals in their fields 
through their campus  libraries, and they are thus being well 
served in what they regard to  be the most important ways for 
their career advancement. If and when  those journals migrate to 
OA, the library will no longer be needed to  provide such access.

14)  Thus, the unintended consequence of the OA movement's 
success, which has focused on the STM arena, may be to 
disintermediate so many of the library's traditional functions 
that,  if libraries do not become completely expendable, they may 
well lose  significant budget support and need to downsize their 
staff radically.

15)   Ergo, the line of causation from scientists' needs for ever 
costly resources leads eventually to both presses and libraries 
risking, if not their very survival, major financial support 
required  for them to carry out what remaining functions they are 
seen to be  needed to serve.

I would welcome comments on this argument.

Sandy Thatcher