Gavia Libraria

The squatter strategy

The Loon has been predicting for quite a while that as library budgets crack under their current strains, big toll-access journal publishers would start decommissioning low-prestige, duplicative, fringe journals to save on overhead.

… but it keeps on stolidly not happening. The Loon is ready to call it a failed hypothesis. Why did it fail, though, and what is actually happening? The Loon doesn’t know; let us by all means be clear about that. She is beginning to formulate an alternate hypothesis, however, and wouldn’t mind sharper minds than hers considering it.

Some relevant evidence we have:

  • Not only are toll-access journals not disappearing, they are springing up in significant numbers at major toll-access publishers.
  • The Loon has not seen evidence that this growth derives from scholars’ demands or even wishes. (N.b. this of course does not mean the evidence does not exist; if anyone knows of any, the Loon would like to hear.) Yes, the publishers must find scholars to serve as editors—but as best the Loon can tell, publishers, not scholars, are initiating these new journals. To the Loon, this seems rather like aiming spaghetti at the nearest wall, but she is open to other interpretations.
  • Indie toll-access journal buyouts by big publishers continue apace.
  • Small-toll-access-publisher buyouts by big publishers continue apace.
  • Big-publisher mergers, or at least merger talks, continue apace.
  • Even the biggest, most resolutely anti-open-access toll-access publishers are starting to dip toes in gold-OA waters, in the Loon’s estimation somewhat less cynically and set-up-to-fail-ly than before. (The Loon almost swallowed her beak when the American Chemical Society announced its gold-OA initiative.)
  • The nation-level regulatory environment, which directs a great deal of research funding, is lumbering steadily toward open access in some form. In the UK particularly, that form may wind up leaning gold rather than green.

One thing certainly seems clear: this is not an industry concerned about controlling costs. That all by itself explodes the Loon’s initial hypothesis! A more nuanced interpretation would be that the industry does not weigh per-journal costs heavily in its calculations, which given the Big Deal context only makes sense. From shoestring open-access journals, too, we know that many journals are quite cheap to run; economies of production scale can only help.

What are the industry’s concerns, then?

  • Stagnant or shrinking library budgets; making more (or even the same) money from existing journals is beginning to be a zero-sum game, if it did not in fact become one when the Great Recession started.
  • Library and reader satisficing via open access, #icanhazpdf, and similar expedients, at the expense of subscriptions and other use fees (such as Copyright Clearance Center royalty collection). As yet, this is a relatively minor concern, but it does have growth potential. A Pyrrhic legal victory by the Georgia State e-reserves plaintiffs could add considerable fuel to this fire.
  • Growing competition from open-access journals—not so much for currency units as for authors, editors, reviewers, and actual articles. Prestige is a factor in this game, to be sure, but the Loon estimates that prestige is means, not end; she is also dead sure that prestige (especially as distinct from quality) is not predictably engineerable, and that publishers are more than smart enough to know that.

Smart librarians of the Loon’s acquaintance suspect that at least part of the purpose behind new toll-access journal creation at existing publishers is to justify charging libraries more when they renew Big Deals. This seems quite plausible as a response to stagnating budgets: leverage existing deals to grab at more market share (measured in currency units), cutting off the remaining toll-access competition. New and newly-acquired journals therefore become a response to market conditions, not expressed scholarly needs. Mergers and acquisitions also fit neatly into this picture.

It is a squatter’s strategy: claim as much land as possible, where “land” is roughly analogous to “mindshare,” regardless of how ultimately fertile or otherwise productive any particular piece of land is. Where the money will come from need not be clear—farming, ranching, use rights for railroads, charging passage tolls, selling town sites, whatever—for the ultimate equation to be “more land means more money.”

Squatting on as many established journals as possible is a reasonable defensive strategy against gold-OA encroachment, given the known hazards and difficulties of launching journals regardless of business model. So is getting in on the gold-OA action! Oh, Springer, you sly dogs—you sorted that out before anyone else in your class, such that your purchase of BioMed Central looks awfully prescient in hindsight. Even the ACS has caught up to the notion now.

Coping with satisficing is decidedly more difficult. Playing whack-a-mole with offenders is resource-intensive and frustrating, since eliminating Internet-samizdat sharing is essentially impossible. A major additional risk is mindshare loss through what faculty perceive as overreaching. Thus far, this risk has been a drips-wearing-away-rock risk rather than an avalanche; even Aaron Swartz’s death did not appreciably shift the mass of faculty. The Loon’s inclination, which she guesses toll-access publishers share, is to accept satisficing as a cost of doing business on the Internet, and not to waste too many resources fighting it—at least until it becomes a measurable, notable factor in library subscription decisions. (“Measurable” may be the difficulty. Libraries cancel subscriptions based on low usage, yes, but how can that be plausibly tied to satisficing?)

So that is the Loon’s new hypothesis: squatting, rather than cost reduction through journal attrition. If the Loon is right, what counterstrategies suggest themselves?

Mergers and acquisitions can’t be fought, though publicly shaming journals that sell out to big publishers might be limitedly useful. New toll-access journals can be fought, however, and remarkably simply at that. The next Cost of Knowledge petition should be simple: “I will refuse to help launch any new journal that is not open access.” Done—and an easy promise for most faculty!

One defensive strategy should also be emplaced as quickly as possible: defending against re-enclosure of open-access journals by toll-access squatters. Solid digital-archiving strategy (such as the DOAJ’s) helps, but does not stop enclosure of new content under the same journal name. If OASPA or COPE can’t find anything better to do, or if an existing open-access publisher would adopt a conscious Archive-Team-like strategy of locating and acquiring open-access journals under threat of re-enclosure, that would be enormously useful.

Librarians have little choice but to vitiate the squatting strategy, honestly; there is no more money. Bulk up on journals and packages howsoever they may, at some point even the biggest publishers and aggregators will start to starve. This will doubtless be an unpleasant process, especially for librarians still resolutely treading water in a certain Egyptian river. For more-enlightened librarians, Jenica Rogers’s suggestions for what to demand of publishers make entire sense to the Loon.

Amusingly, Rogers’s suggestions significantly reduce the value of the squatter strategy, raising the value of a strategy based on cost reduction through journal attrition and smaller focused journal stables… which is exactly where the Loon began this post, and how she will conclude it.

2 thoughts on “The squatter strategy

  1. Carl Hess

    I wonder if part of why your original hypothesis isn’t panning out is that journal publishers would not make changes based on decreasing library budgets in general, but only if that translates into decreasing serials budgets. Even though academic library budgets as a total are decreasing, the amount of money spent on journals appears, from everything I’ve read, to be increasing, with the difference coming at the expense of print books. So, if squatting causes library’s to continue to shift budgets towards serials, though methods such as Jenica Rogers’s theory (probably correct) on justifying increases in Big Deal costs through poor-quality journals, then publishers would not need to make any real shift until there is literally no library budget left to shift to serials (or librarians actually engage in mass in the counter-strategies).

    1. Library Loon Post author

      While this is true, the blood has already been wrung from that particular turnip. Serials budgets themselves are stagnating.