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Re: paper on libraries and publishers

Two weeks ago Andrew Odlyzko posted the URL for a paper he has written on
"Competition and co-operation: libraries and publishers in the transition
to electronic scholarly journals". I have not seen any reaction to that
paper, and that is a pity, because Andrew's thesis is one which librarians
should take seriously. Perhaps like me you have been waiting for a long
plane journey in order to read it; for me it was the flight to Philadelphia
which provided the opportunity.

Andrew's argument is that publishers have an opportunity to take over the
role of libraries in providing access to journal literature because they
can provide a cheaper service without the high overheads associated with
maintaining a library. I would like to think that he is wrong but his
reasoning is close enough to the truth for it to hurt. The main difficulty
I have with his paper is that I am not sure that he is right to attribute
such high costs to journal acquisition and processing within libraries. As
with any attempt to analyse publishing costs, so with library costs,
disaggregating the various elements is hazardous. The other problem is that
library costs tend to be amortized over a long period, and you can present
the figures as higher or lower according to the time-span you choose. On
the other hand, whichever way you look at the figures, acquiring journals
and making them accessible to readers is an expensive process, in some
situations possibly a higher cost than the cost of the subscriptions. The
other side of the costing argument is equally uncertain. Could publishers
(or perhaps would publishers) provide a cheaper service direct to users
than libraries can? Andrew Odlyzko's argument is that their opportunity
lies in the switch to electronic publication.

The advantage publishers have in this situation is that they have the
commercial imperative. They have to change in order to continue to make a
profit. Librarians may feel safe, embedded so firmly in the structure of
their institutions that they do not realise the need to change. That is
where a paper like Andrew's is valuable. I do think that librarians have to
pay more attention than they have in the past to the internal costs of
acquiring and making available journal literature. Too often we have
concentrated on the external cost, i.e. the sum we pay to the publisher.
How vulnerable we are on the costs of running the service varies from
institution to institution, but we should keep a wary eye upon any
commercial predators who may tempt our institution to out-source journal
article supply.

To end this contribution on a positive note, I do believe that two
developments are enabling us to reduce costs : the electronic revolution
which is benefiting libraries as well as publishers, and the use of
consortia to save administrative costs. 

Fred Friend   
At 17:54 20/01/99 EST, Andrew Odlyzko wrote:
>A paper on the changing roles of libraries and publishers is available in
>several formats (text, .tex, .ps, .pdf) at
>        http://www.research.att.com/~amo/doc/eworld.html
>An abstract is enclosed below.  Comments are invited.
>Andrew Odlyzko

Frederick J.Friend, 
Director Scholarly Communication,
c/o Graduate School,
Wilkins Building,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT,
Telephone +44 171 380 7090    
Fax           +44 171 380 7043
E-mail       ucylfjf@ucl.ac.uk   or    f.friend@ucl.ac.uk