Thursday, December 08, 2005

Shifting Away From Print, Strategically

Eileen Gifford Fenton and Roger C. Schonfeld have published a short but thoughtful discussion on "The Shift Away from Print" in today's Inside Higher Ed.

For most scholarly journals, the transition away from the print format and to an exclusive reliance on the electronic version seems all but inevitable, driven by user preferences for electronic journals and concerns about collecting the same information in two formats. But this shift away from print, in the absence of strategic planning by a higher proportion of libraries and publishers, may endanger the viability of certain journals and even the journal literature more broadly — while not even reducing costs in the ways that have long been assumed.

Although the opportunities before us are significant, a smooth transition away from print and to electronic versions of journals requires concerted action, most of it individually by libraries and publishers.

In reaching this conclusion, we rely largely on a series of studies, of both publishers and libraries, in which we examined some of the incentives for a transition and some of the opportunities and challenges that present themselves. Complete findings of our library study, on which we partnered with Don King and Ann Okerson, were published as The Nonsubscription Side of Periodicals. We also recently completed a study of the operations of 10 journal publishers, in conjunction with Mary Waltham, an independent publishing consultant.

Taken together, these studies suggest that an electronic-only environment would be more cost-effective than print-only for most journals, with cost savings for both libraries and publishers. But this systemwide perspective must also be balanced against a more textured examination of libraries and publishers....

Faced with resource constraints, librarians have been required to make hard choices, electing not to purchase the print version but only to license electronic access to many journals — a step more easily made in light of growing faculty acceptance of the electronic format. Consequently, especially in the sciences, but increasingly even in the humanities, library demand for print has begun to fall. As demand for print journals continues to decline and economies of scale of print collections are lost, there is likely to be a tipping point at which continued collecting of print no longer makes sense and libraries begin to rely only upon journals that are available electronically.

I have made the same point here on this blog and in articles with respect to publishers, but without having made the connection with the "tipping point" buzzword: at some point (probably sooner than later) the demand for most print publications in law will become so low that it will no longer be affordable for publishers to continue offering print--at which point the few remaining diehards in law firms and law faculties will have to suck it up and accept online.

Fenton and Schonfeld rightly point out that the issue of archiving digital collections that are licensed rather than purchased is crucial, but that does not make it a reason to drag our feet. On the contrary, this makes it more urgent for libraries and library organizations to address the problem in a serious way.

UPDATE 17:22: More comments here and here.