The reasons why e-journals became the target of choice include history, economics and technical convenience. In this post I will analyze these reasons in the light of what is now almost a decade of experience, and argue that they make less sense than they should.
There are two main answers to the question "why preserve e-journals?":
- Post-cancellation access to subscription material.
- Maintaining the integrity of the record of scholarship.
In this post I'll look at post-cancellation access. I'll return to the problem of maintaining the integrity of the record in a subsequent post.
Many libraries' interest in preserving e-journals arose when it became obvious that a side-effect of the transition of academic publishing to the Web was to change what the libraries were buying with their subscription dollars.
In the paper world the library purchased a physical copy of the content. Their reader's continued access to the content did not depend on continuing subscription payments, only on the library's decision whether or not to de-accession it. In the Web world, the library's subscription leased access to the publisher's copy of the content. Their reader's continued access to the content is perpetually at the mercy of the publisher's pricing policy.
This uncertainty didn't make the librarians happy, and since they write the checks that keep the publishers churning out content, they had various ways to communicate their unhappiness to the publishers. The first, immediate response was to insist on receiving paper copies as well as web access. It rapidly became obvious that this wasn't an acceptable solution to anyone. The libraries' readers rapidly found that they were vastly more productive working with web content. On-line use greatly outpaced use of paper. The publishers soon realized, not just that their readers preferred the Web, but more importantly that it was much cheaper to publish on the Web than on paper. Could librarians be persuaded to accept electronic-only publishing, while maintaining the same subscription pricing?
The major impediment to this tempting prospect was the librarians' insecurity about future access to the content to which they subscribed. Even publisher's promises that they would provide ex-subscribers free access to the content they had paid for weren't convincing; librarians were rightly skeptical of promises whose costs weren't covered.
Two broad approaches to post-cancellation access have been tried. One is to restore the paper model by preserving local copies, in which libraries pay to receive a copy of the content which they can keep and use to satisfy future requests for access. The other is to devise and implement an escrow service, a third party which receives a copy of the content from the publisher and, subject to the agreement of the publisher, to which it can provide ex-subscribers access.
After about a decade of concern about post-cancellation access, we have a small number of partial solutions to the problem. Some are local copy solutions and have been in production use for some years. A few libraries including University of Toronto (.ppt) and Los Alamos use a commercial system from Elsevier (now sold to Ex Libris) called JOS (Journals On Site) to preserve local copies of journals from Elsevier and some other major publishers. About 200 libraries use the LOCKSS system to preserve content from a wide range of publishers, largely disjoint from those in JOS. Others are escrow services, including some copyright deposit schemes at national libraries, and the Portico system. None has yet achieved anything approaching full coverage of the field, all are at a nascent stage. None is routinely providing readers with post-cancellation access.
As time has gone by with no simple, affordable, one size fits all publishers and libraries system for post-cancellation access the world has changed.
First, paper journals are no longer the version of record; for many of the most cited, highest impact journals the version delivered over the network has more information and more highly valued functions. The paper version is incomplete.
Second, the various ways publishers have tried to deliver physical copies of e-journal content, for example on CD-ROM, have proved to be so much trouble to deal with that they have been discredited as a means of post-cancellation access.
Third, the continual increase in subscription costs and the availability of cheap Web publishing platforms is driving a movement for open access to scholarship. It isn't certain that this will continue, and the effect varies greatly from field to field, but to the extent to which the trend continues it again reduces the importance of a solution to post-cancellation access. There is no subscription to cancel.
Fourth, the pressure for open access to the scientific literature has led many subscription journals to adopt a moving wall. Access to the content is restricted to subscribers for a period of time after it is first published, ranging from a few months to five years. After that, access is opened to anyone. The idea is that researchers active in a field will need immediate access to new content, and will justify the subscription to their librarians. Thus librarians will believe that, when their future readers want access, the moving wall will still be in effect to satisfy them. Thus they will be satisfied with a Web-only subscription.
Fifth, some other publishers have decided that charging for their back content on a pay-per-view basis is an important revenue source. These publishers are unlikely to participate in any solution for post-cancellation access.
Sixth, big publishers increasingly treat their content not as separate journals but as a single massive database. Subscription buys access to the whole database. If a library cancels their subscription, they lose access to the whole database. This bundling, or "big deal", leverages a small number of must-have journals to ensure that cancellation of even low-value journals, the vast majority in the bundle, is very unlikely. It is more expensive to subscribe individually to the few high-value journals than to take the "big deal". Thus cancellation of large publisher journals is a low risk, which is the goal of the "big deal" scheme.
Publishers who charge for back content typically do not allow their journals to be preserved using the LOCKSS system. They may provide their content to the nascent schemes for electronic copyright deposit at national libraries, but under very restrictive terms for access. For example, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the forthcoming British Library schemes both provide full access only to readers physically at the library itself; others get no or minimal access. National libraries are not a realistic solution to providing post-cancellation access to readers at subscribing libraries. Again, although these publishers may deposit content in the Portico system they're unlikely to sign the:
"rider to the agreement that a participating publisher signs if they choose to name Portico as a mechanism to fill post-cancellation access claims submitted by participating libraries." (emphasis added)
The rider in question is as follows:
"Perpetual Access.[Publisher] agrees that Portico shall provide access to the [content] to [Publisher]'s former purchasers or subscribers. Participating [Libraries] may submit perpetual access claims to Portico by certifying, either electronically or in writing, that they were a purchaser or subscriber to [the content] to which they are seeking access. ... Portico may Deliver the requested [content] if [publisher] has not notified Portico and the [library] of its objection ... in writing within thirty (30) days."
Thus for each library and each publisher, post-cancellation access is subject to the agreement of the publisher after the subscription has been canceled. Despite having a current subscription to Portico after they cancel their subscription to the publisher's content, and despite the publisher's having signed the rider, libraries can't be fully confident of receiving post-cancellation access. For example, suppose that a publisher signs the rider and is then sold to another that regards charging for post-cancellation access as important to its business model. The new owner could simply institute a policy of objecting to all perpetual access claims.
About 1/3 of Portico's publishers currently have not signed the rider. The only access a library obtains to their content is described here:
"The participating Library may designate up to four staff members per campus or system branch that will be provided password protected full access to the Portico archive for verification and testing purposes only." (emphasis added)
It is clear that a scrupulous library cannot look on Portico as a universal, robust solution for post-cancellation access.
There are two fundamental contradictions in the attempt to solve the problem of access to content after a subscription to a service (the publisher) is canceled by subscribing to a service (the preservation system) which prevents access after its subscription is canceled. First, it is not a solution, it is another instance of the same problem. Second, to the extent to which the subscription to the second service is regarded as insurance, it suffers from the same moral hazard as someone who takes out fire insurance then burns down the building himself. Insurance is being purchased against the direct consequences of voluntary actions by the insured. In other areas claims against such policies are treated as insurance fraud.
So we see that no matter how ingenious the proponents of digital preservation for e-journals, there is no realistic prospect of a single solution that provides post-cancellation access for 100% of subscription content the way that paper did. Generally speaking, the smaller publishers will be more likely allow one or more preservation systems to provide post-cancellation access, and the larger for-profit publishers will be less likely. There will always be some level of uncertainty as to whether access will actually be available when it is needed.
The following post looks at the second reason for preserving e-journals, maintaining the integrity of the record of scholarship.