The Pricing Challenge

Recently, a post resurfaced on the Scholarly Kitchen revisiting trends in library expenditures and journal prices. The findings show that prices have increased by only about 9% on a per-journal basis, while expenditures have tripled owing to the rapid increase in outputs -- which have essentially tripled themselves. These findings became clear once pricing data for digital licenses were used rather than traditional print journals prices.

While this is perhaps cause for praise as publishers have kept their journal prices under control in the digital age, it is also cause for concern. CPI during the same period as the pricing study increased by nearly 68%, which is a rough measure that suggests publishers haven't been able to keep their prices at the level that matches general inflation in the overall economy. Instead, they've lowered their margins while making up for the pricing weakness with volume and efficiencies, including a lot of outsourcing and offshoring.

Volume and efficiencies can only carry you so far. There are only so many scientists and studies, and there are only so many services you can negotiate down or eliminate. Already, some are complaining that publishers aren't providing enough service as new standards and expectations hit researchers.

Yet, nobody is putting much new money into the research economy, and certainly not through the libraries. Tuition increases continue to outpace declines in academic libraries' share of university budgets, but this also cannot go on forever. The tuition burden is sure to reach a breaking point, and stop if not slowed dramatically first. When this happens, library budgets, unless their downward trend in share of university spending is reversed, will shrink even more.

One gambit that seems beyond the realm of possibility is simply to introduce significant price increases. This has happened in the past, and while typically attended by public shaming and controversy, the pricing seems to largely stick. Commercial publishers and the large non-profits have been the most savvy in this regard, leaving the smaller non-profits -- which are rightly worried about their ability to navigate forward from here -- out in the cold for the most part. These more cautious organizations tend to benchmark against what libraries and similar organizations signal. Perhaps it's time for them to grit their teeth and take the pricing plunge. After all, on the basis of quality and desirability, their products often seem underpriced to begin with.

Whether pricing is incremental, daring, or even discounted, risk is the name of the game. Are you pushing too far? Leaving money on the table? Devaluing your reputation? Pricing is never easy, but there's a fair amount of experience to suggest that moving prices northward has fewer downsides -- if you have the stomach for it -- than other alternatives.