A recent wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions has shaken the sleepy world of academic journal publishing. Despite being notoriously unprofitable as businesses, academic publishers have become profit centers, even attractive takeover targets. The reason for this altered perception is the realization that publishers have the potential to take full control of the published work, limit access to it via favorable copyright laws, and then charge whatever the traffic will bear. Meanwhile, academic libraries in their role as consumers of that work are caught in a squeeze between demand from their own consumers (faculty and students) and their static budgets.
In recent years the cost of subscriptions to many academic journals has exploded upward, putting libraries in a bind. The annual Library Journal survey of periodical prices has documented increases ranging from under 10% (in the arts and architecture) to more than 85% (in military science) in the cost of institutional subscriptions from 1997 to 2001. For example, the cost of a "marketbasket" of 266 business and economics journal subscriptions has increased 51% in the same period (Born and Van Orsdel 2001). When prices get too high for individual subscribers, they simply cancel their subscriptions and expect their libraries to carry on. However, under the differential pricing strategy that is traditional in this business, libraries must pay a much higher institutional rate for the same product. For example, an individual would pay $180 for 12 issues of Psychology & Marketing, while the institutional subscription rate is $780.
Libraries do not have the same freedom of choice that individual subscribers do. To meet the demands of their customers, libraries are forced to act as if they were price-insensitive; yet their tight funding situation dictates that they be highly price-sensitive. Thus libraries are truly a captive market. This is the temptation that leads journal publishers to abuse their differential pricing strategy and overcharge their institutional customers. Ordinarily, price insensitivity on the part of customers might reflect either a willingness to pay higher prices or a disinclination to take the trouble to find a lower price. Neither is true of college and university libraries today.
As the universe of knowledge expands, academic libraries have some tough decisions to make. As more and more new titles appear, scholars and their libraries cannot afford to ignore them and the articles they contain. Yet the library must balance the need to add new journal titles each year with the need to continue old subscriptions. They must determine which format (print, microfilm, electronic) is most cost-effective and offers the most utility to the end user. This annual budget exercise has an impact not only on the library, but on the operation of the entire institution. Yet publishing houses and their corporate owners have made few concessions in pricing, despite the fact that libraries are their major market.
At first blush, this might appear to be a shortsighted business strategy. But publishers, like libraries, are responding to pressures, as well as seeking opportunities. Mergers and acquisitions force publishing operations to become profit centers, and change the competitive landscape from day to day. The great cost of the research and development that has brought about the digital revolution must be paid. Searchable online database technology surely rivals the invention of the printing press as an epoch-making change, and no publisher can compete without offering it.
Publishers have coupled their subscription pricing strategy with an online access strategy. Most libraries now offer their academic communities convenient access to hundreds of thousands of articles online, even when they don't own all of the journals represented. This is made possible by a vast web of relationships between individual journals, publishers, their corporate parents, and a new breed of firms called "aggregated database providers. …