Elsevier Science Experiences with Commercial Electronic Journals
Elsevier Electronic Subscriptions
The single largest Elsevier program of commercial electronic delivery is the Elsevier Electronic Subscriptions (EES) program. This is the commercial extension of the TULIP program to all 1,100 Elsevier primary and review journals. The licensing negotiations are exclusively with institutions, which receive the journal files and mount them on their local network. The license gives the library unlimited use of the files within their authorized user community. As far as we are aware, academic libraries are not charging their patrons for their use of the files, so there is no data relating user acceptance to price. At least one corporate library charges use back to departments, but this practice is consistent for all of its services and has not affected use as far as is known.
If you broaden the term user to include the paying institution, as discussed above, then there is clearly a relation between pricing and user acceptance. If we can't reach an agreement on price in license negotiations, there is no deal. And it is a negotiation. The desire from the libraries is often for price predictability over a multiyear period. Because prices are subject to both annual price increases and the fluctuation of the dollar, there can be dramatic changes from year to year. For many institutions, the deal is much more "acceptable" if these increases are fixed in advance.
The absolute price is also, of course, an issue. There is little money available, and high pricing of electronic products will result in a reluctant end to discussions. Discussions are both easier and more complicated with consortia. It is easier to make the deal a winning situation for the members of the consortium (with virtually all members getting access to some titles that they previously did not have), but it is more complicated because of the number of parties who have to sign off on the transaction.
Finally, for a product such as EES, the total cost to the subscribing institution
goes beyond what is paid to Elsevier as publisher. There is the cost of the hardware and software to store and run the system locally, the staff needed to update and maintain the system, local marketing and training time, and so on. It is part of Elsevier's sales process to explain these costs to the subscribing institution, because it is not in our interest or theirs to underestimate the necessary effort only to have it become clear during implementation. To date, our library customers have appreciated that approach.
Immunology Today Online (ITO)
Immunology Today is one of the world's leading review journals, with an ISI impact factor of more than 24. It is a monthly magazine-like title, with a wide individual and institutional subscription base. (The Elsevier review magazines are the exception to the rule in that they have significant individual subscriptions.) In 1994 Immunology Today's publishing staff decided it was a good title to launch also in an electronic version. They worked with OCLC to make it a part of the OCLC Electronic Journals Online collection, initially offered via proprietary Guidon software and launched in January 1995.
As with other journals then and now making their initial on-line appearance, the first period of use was without charge. A test bed developed of about 5% of the individual subscribers to the paper version and 3% of the library subscribers. In time, there was a conversion to paid subscriptions, with the price for the combined paper and electronic personal subscriptions being 125% of the paper price. (Subscribers were not required to take both the paper and electronic versions-but only three people chose to take electronic only.) At the time that OCLC ended the service at the end of 1996 and we began the process of moving subscribers to a similar Web version of our own, the paid subscription level for individuals was up to about 7.0% of the individual subscribers and 0.3% of the institutional subscribers.
The poor take-up by libraries was not really a surprise. At the beginning, libraries did not know how to evaluate or offer to patrons a single electronic journal subscription as opposed to a database of journals. (There is a steady improvement in this area, provoked in part by the journals-notably The Journal of Biological Chemistry -offered via High Wire Press.) How do you let people know it is available? How and where is it available? And is a review journal-even a very popular review journal-the place to start? It apparently seemed like more trouble than it was worth to many librarians.
In talking with die individual subscribers-and those who did not subscribe-it was clear that price was not a significant factor in their decisions. The functionality of the electronic version was the selling point. It has features that are not in the paper version and is, of course, fully searchable. That means the value was, in part, in efficiency-the ease with which you find that article that you recalled reading six months ago but don't remember the audior or precise month or the
ease with which you search for information on a new topic of interest. The electronic version is a complement to the paper, not a substitute. Those individuals who chose not to subscribe either were deterred by the initial OCLC software (which had its problems) and may now be lured back via our Web version or they have not yet seen a value that will add to their satisfaction with paper. But their hesitation has not been a question of price.
Journal of the American College of Cardiology
A project involving the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) was somewhat different. This flagship journal is owned by a major society and has been published by Elsevier Science since its beginning in the early 1980s. In 1995, in consultation with the society, Elsevier developed a CD-ROM version. The electronic design-style, interface, and access tools-is quite good. The cost of the CD-ROM is relatively low ($295 for institutions, substantially less for members), and it includes not only the journal but also five years of JACC abstracts, the abstracts from the annual meeting, and one year (six issues) of another publication, entitled ACC Current Reviews.
But the CD-ROM has sold only modestly well. Libraries, again, resist CD-ROMs for individual journals (as opposed to journal collections). And the doctors have not found it a compelling purchase. Is it price per se? Or is it the notion of paying anything more, when the paper journal comes bundled as part of the membership dues? Or is there simply no set of well-defined benefits? Clearly, the perceived value to the user is not sufficient to cause many to reach for a credit card.
GeneCOMBIS and Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters Online
I mentioned above that for some paper journals we have personal rates for individuals at subscribing institutions. This model has been extended to Web products related to those paper journals. In addition to the basic journal Gene, mentioned earlier, we publish an electronic section called GeneCOMBIS (for Computing for Molecular Biology Information Service ), which is an electronic-first publication devoted to the computing problems that arise in molecular biology. It publishes its own new papers. The papers are also published in hard copy, but the electronic version includes hypertext links to programs, data sets, genetics databases, and other software objects. GeneCOMBIS is sold to individuals for $75 per year, but only to those individuals whose institutions subscribe to Gene.
The same model is repeated with the electronic version of a leading earth sciences journal, Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters. The affiliated rate for the electronic version was introduced in 1997, with a nominal list price of $90 and a half-price offer for 1997 of $45. The electronic version provides on-line access to the journal and to extra material such as data sets for individuals affiliated with subscribing institutions.
It is too early to know whether this model will work. There certainly has been interest. In the case of GeneCOMBIS, its success will ultimately depend on the quality and volume of the papers it attracts. With EPSL Online, success will be determined by the perceived value of the electronic version and its added information. In neither case is price expected to have a significant effect on subscriptions. More likely, there will be pressure to extend the subscriptions to individuals working outside institutions that have the underlying paper subscriptions.