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By Pamela Zerbinos
There is a saying in the world of scientific journals that is something of a cliché: "The subscription model is broken".
What broke it is rather up in the air. The rise of the Information Age and the accompanying public perception that information should be readily-and cheaply-available may have had something to do with it. The print journals keep getting larger and more numerous and libraries are simply running out of space in which to keep them. Meanwhile, publishing costs have been rising and numbers of subscriptions have been dropping.
Subscriptions to the APS's journals have been declining at a steady rate of 3.5% per year for about 30 years. The APS, which publishes eight journals, has been forced to raise subscription prices year after year, and although there has been an effort made to keep the increases in the single digits, it hasn't always happened that way. For 2004, subscriptions prices will be up an average of 8.7%.
Physics journals are not the only ones experiencing this phenomenon. A recent study by the University of Maryland Health and Human Services Library found that the average price of biology, chemistry, psychology, anthropology and other journals has increased nearly threefold since 1992. A recent Harper's Index (March 2003) claims that the average price for a US scientific, medical or technical journal has increased 250% since 1988.
As prices have climbed, the burden for paying the publishing costs has shifted away from large research institutions to smaller schools, less able to carry that burden. Several trends are responsible for this phenomenon, including the elimination of page charges (traditionally paid by research institutions) brought about by the direct competition of commercial physics journals; and the cancellations of multiple subscriptions at large institutions due to the electronic availability of the APS journals.
The APS has taken several steps in an effort to achieve a fair distribution of costs between major research-active subscribers, small undergraduate institutions, and those in between, including multi-tier pricing and the consortium model of journal subscriptions.
The consortium model has been growing quickly. It was pioneered by commercial publishers such as Academic Press and Elsevier, and now offered by many of the major academic publishers. APS along with the American Institute of Physics have been making consortium arrangements with government, corporate, and academic institutions, both domestically and internationally, for the past couple of years.
"The consortium model is really a response to an attempt to bring together people with a common interest in information to try and use resources more efficiently," said Tom McIlrath, APS treasurer.
The consortium model is based on historical subscription data, with an access fee added to the price of the sum of the original subscriptions. Participating members of the consortium gain online access to the specific titles or in most cases to expanded amount of content for relatively a small additional cost. Each consortium is different, and so is each deal.
"The consortium model, if it becomes pervasive, will have three effects," said Barbara Hicks, APS associate publisher and director of marketing. "It will hopefully allow APS to sustain its current revenue, provide a new revenue stream and make the APS journals more widely available. In many cases, the consortium model grants electronic journal access to smaller institutions that have not traditionally been able to afford subscriptions on their own."
Corporations can—and have—formed consortia to allow employees in various offices around the world to access the journals. Single universities wishing students on satellite campuses to have access can also form consortia.
After the deal is negotiated, each institution in the consortium is given online access to the APS journal titles as subscribed to. They have the option of converting from print plus online subscriptions to the electronic version and receive the appropriate discount (approximately 15% discount) any time during the agreement.
For consortia members, the model works best if they have outside funding. The APS' first consortium, OhioLink, comprises all the universities in Ohio and is subsidized by the state legislature.
By contrast, a different state without that outside source of funds would have a very difficult time getting all the universities to sign a consortium deal. The large universities likely already subscribe to all the APS journals and would therefore just be paying an additional fee to allow the smaller institutions access, which not all are willing to do.
Libraries of all sizes worldwide gain benefits from joining consortia by providing budgetary stability via multi-year contracts, price caps, and electronic access to expanded content for a small additional fee.
For APS, advantages have been realized from additional revenue streams, stable revenues over long license terms (usually three years), and stability of existing subscriptions because of the non-cancellation policies.
Consortia have another advantage, in support of the Society's mission, "to promote the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics," as greater amounts of APS journal content are made available to a vastly expanded community.