End User Purchasing
If we talk of pricing and "user acceptance," an immediate question is: who is the user? Is it the end user or is it the person paying the bill, if they are not one and the same? We presume that the intention was to reflect the judgments made by end users when those end users are also the ones bearing the economic consequences of their decisions. In academic information purchasing (as with consumer
purchasing), the end user has traditionally been shielded from the full cost (often any cost) of information. Just as newspapers and magazine costs are heavily subsidized by advertising, and radio and television revenues (excluding cable) are totally paid by advertisers, so do academic journal users benefit from the library as the purchasing agent.
In connection with the design of its new Web journal database and host service, ScienceDirect, Elsevier Science in 1996 held a number of focus groups with scientists in the United States and the United Kingdom. Among the questions asked was the amount of money currently spent personally (including from grant funds) annually on the acquisition of information resources. The number was consistently below $500 and was generally between $250 and $400, often including society dues, which provided journal subscriptions as part of the dues. There was almost no willingness to spend more money, and there was a consistent expectation that the library would continue to be the provider of services, including new electronic services.
This finding is consistent with the results of several years of direct sales of documents through the (now) Knight-Ridder CARL UnCover service. When it introduced its service a few years ago, UnCover had expected to have about 50% of the orders coming directly from individuals, billed to their credit cards. In fact, as reported by Martha Whitaker of CARL during the 1997 annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers, Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division in February, the number has stayed at about 20% (of a modestly growing total business).
From their side, libraries are concerned that the user has little or no appreciation of the cost to the library of fulfilling their users' requests. In two private discussions in February of 1997, academic librarians told me of their frustration when interlibrary loan requests are made, the articles procured, and the requesters notified, but then the articles are not picked up. There is a sense that this service is "free," even though it is well-documented (via a Mellon study) that the cost is now more than $30 per ILL transaction.
In this context, discussions with some academic librarians about the introduction of electronic journal services have not always brought the expected reactions. It had been our starting premise that electronic journals should mimic paper journals in certain ways, most notably that once you have paid the subscription, then you have unlimited use within the authorized user community. However, one large library consortium negotiator has taken the position that such an approach may not be desirable, that it may be better to start educating users that information has a cost attached to it.
Similarly, other librarians have expressed concern about on-line facilities that permit users to acquire individual articles on a transactional basis from nonsubscribed titles (e.g., in a service such as ScienceDirect ). While the facilities may be in place to bill the end user directly, the librarians believe the users will not be willing to pay the likely prices ($15-25). Yet, if the library is billed for everything, either
the cost will run up quickly or any prepaid quota of articles will be used equally rapidly. The notion that was suggested was to find some way to make a nominal personal charge of perhaps $1 or $2 or $3 per transaction. It was the librarians' belief that such a charge would be enough to make the user stop and think before ordering something that would result in a much larger ultimate charge to the library.
The concern that demand could swamp the system if unregulated is one that would be interesting to test on a large scale. While there have been some experiments, which I will describe further below, we have not yet had sufficient experience to generalize. Journal users are, presumably, different from America Online customers, who so infamously swamped the network in December 1996 when pricing was changed from time-based to unlimited use for $19.95 per month. Students, faculty, and other researchers read journals for professional business purposes and generally try to read as little as possible. They want to be efficient in combing and reviewing the literature and not to read more and more without restraint. The job of a good electronic system is to increase that efficiency by providing tools to sift the relevant from the rest.
It is interesting to note that in a paper environment, the self-described "king of cancellations," Chuck Hamaker, formerly of Louisiana State University, reported during the 1997 mid-winter ALA meeting that he had canceled $738,885 worth of subscriptions between 1986 and 1996 and substituted free, library-sanctioned, commercial document delivery services. The cost to the library has been a fraction of what the subscription cost would have been. He now has about 900 faculty and students who have profiles with the document deliverer (UnCover) and who order directly, on an unmediated basis, with the library getting the bill. He would like to see that number increase (there are 5,000 faculty and students who would qualify). It will be interesting to see if the same pattern will occur if the article is physically available on the network and the charge is incurred as a result of viewing or downloading. Will the decision to print be greater (because it is immediate and easy) than to order from a document delivery service?
This question highlights one of the issues surrounding transactional selling: how much information is sufficient to ensure that the article being ordered will be useful? Within the ScienceDirect environment we hope to answer this question by creating services specifically for individual purchase that offer the user an article snapshot or summary (SummaryPlus), which includes much more than the usual information about the article (e.g., it includes all tables and graphs and all references). The summary allows the user to make a more informed decision about whether to purchase the full article.