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Aggravation Due to (Dis)aggregation…

There is a trend that is causing me great consternation, and I think its impact is only just starting to hurt our users and budgets. It is the decision being taken by some publishers of electronic versions of journals and law reports to remove their titles from the aggregators, such as Lexis or Westlaw, and to build their own platforms and then sell the titles /access separately to consumers at a rate they think is achievable.

I admit to my fair share of cynicism in relation to legal publishers; many – though thank goodness not all – have always seemed to operate a pricing policy based on ‘what the market can bear’. In the old days, the value of a legal treatise seemed to be determined by the weight/number of pages as much as any rational pricing policy based on solid market research. Lawyers were seen as fair game, because books were their tools of trade.

With the advent of electronic provision, the product was suddenly harder to value; development costs of electronic resource retention, copying, and distribution were all front loaded and passed on to the purchaser. We accepted these costs initially because we agreed that they did need to meet the start up costs of e-development, and our payments could thus help to make the products more accessible. 

However, I have yet to hear of an e-resource provider coming to the consumer with the following proposition:

Well, we have set up our infrastructure, we have digitised all our backsets, we have added the software to allow for hyperlinking and many other great features. We can now reduce our price to you because the set up costs have been met, and we are now in steady state.

So the aggregators seek new and unique e-resources to add to their package and see this as adding value and justifying their above inflation annual price hikes. The fact that neither your library nor any of your users need a subscription to ‘Journal of train spotters’ law’ is irrelevant. However, the really annoying thing is that when a publisher, who has supplied their content to the aggregators for many years, suddenly withdraws their content from the aggregator’s site, we are never offered a reduction in subscription to compensate. 

What we did not anticipate some years ago when we all acceded to prices imposed on us by the large aggregators, was that we would soon be faced with some smaller, specialist publishers deciding to go it alone, by setting up their own e-resource site with access their own journal and report titles. The infrastructure costs of digitising and value-adding to content have reduced sufficiently in recent years for publishers to see self-publishing as their growth area, and the temptation to cut out the middleman appears to be the strategy for improved ongoing income generation in the future.

Thus we have recently been faced with two UK publishers removing key titles with little notification to either the aggregators or the customers. And whilst these publishers express surprise at the vehemence of complaints over this, they feel a month or two of free access while they sort themselves out will be enough to keep us happy. With one publisher, it has taken more than 2 years for them to try to sort out a suitable pricing structure that may see some take-up. Another publisher here, in a niche area of law, gave us about 2 weeks’ notice of their intention to go it alone and to pull their titles out of the aggregator. In so doing , both have presented customers with a price for their services that is fanciful, in fact in some instances ludicrous. For somewhere around 10% of our annual cost for full access to all content, local and international, on Lexis, we will be provided with 3 specialist journals, 1 law reports, and 2 textbooks as e-books. Another publisher thinks charging 25% of the cost of Lexis for 8 titles is fair. I just do not understand their thinking.

Libraries are in difficult economic straits. We are asked to purchase more and more e-resources because of their universal accessibility, their scope, and their general ease of use. Many libraries still have to purchase a raft of paper titles, reports, or legislation, or text books, etc. Budget allocations do not increase. It may be possible in law firms to recoup some costs through client charges, though I recall that firms were reluctant in the past to charge clients for research services. Times may well have changed since I left law firms. 

The other huge disadvantage is to our users – for every single tinpot e-publication, they have to learn a new method of access and searching; they have to know intuitively where to go to find the resource they need, and then they need to navigate pages of different bumpf each time. There are some federated search products available, but so far none of these provides us with a magic bullet that will make the users’ experience seamless. To some extent Google Advanced Scholar Search is on the way to filling this niche .

One purpose of libraries is to provide readers with resources that are too specialised and expensive for individuals to purchase, and to make them available to many readers. Libraries are altruistic institutions by the nature of their core sharing function. We appreciate that publishers are having a hard time envisioning their future, and that they need to make profits. But shouldn’t they look beyond this and consider the user as well; it could well be that their audiences will decrease if they go down this path. On an aggregated site, specialist titles are found not only by the specialist lawyers, but by all the users of that broad service. Once these titles leave the aggregators, just the specialists will be there to read the separate special titles; in many places the specialist items will just disappear because of the added cost.

So how do we deal with this insidious development? Can we refuse to take up the subscriptions, and be like Marie Antoinette, saying of our users –‘Let them read paper!’? Unfortunately I do not think so. But the problem is a growing one, and I fear it will not go away. Perhaps the raising of many voices could make a difference. It is worth a try.

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Comments

  1. As more and more of the smaller publishers migrate away from the aggregators, where do the authors whose works are involved stand in all of this? That is, do the authors prefer a more exclusive specialized audience? Do the authors want their works to be more accessible or are they equating exclusivity with prestige?

    And another issue is, are the aggregators interested in partnering or supporting the smaller publishers in growing their businesses and not just licensing their content?