Academic Price Hikes: Predatory or Parasitical?

June 2, 2014

In the animal world, there are many ways two species can interact. They may compete. They may partner. They may form symbiotic relationships. Or one may prey on the other. 

That leads me to the topic of academic ebook price hikes, as discussed May 27 in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Letters column. 

Boston Library Consortium (BLC) Executive Director Susan Stearns and President-Elect John Unsworth wrote that BLC “was surprised to learn that a number of the publishers in [a collaborative ebook lending] program planned immediate, significant, and unexplained increases in price. Even worse, the new pricing goes into effect at a time when library budgets are already committed for the 2015 fiscal year.

“These newly announced price increases, amounting to several hundred percent in some cases, are levied on short-term uses, and this regressive pricing model is being adopted by the publishers whose ebooks are already among the most expensive in the scholarly market.”

Do publishers have to make money? They do. But raising prices when the revenues are down will not, surely, result in more sales. When such price hikes occur without prior discussion or preparation, when in fact the cost to produce new products is itself cheaper than to produce print, we can rule out partnership or symbiosis between publisher and library. 

The peculiar thing about academic publishing is that it really needs libraries. University writing depends on scholarship and access to the work of others. As the price rises, universities will naturally seek out other models, accelerating the rise in experiments with open access. So perhaps competition is the road to salvation.

Meanwhile, academic publishers really can’t exist in a world where academic libraries can no longer afford to purchase more than a few subscription services.

There’s yet another kind of relationship in the animal world: Parasitism. It can get tricky. A successful parasite not only feeds off its host, but has to be careful not to kill it.