Rollo Turner (2001) An end to Great Publishing Myths. Psycoloquy: 12(012) Electronic Journals (10)

Volume: 12 (next, prev) Issue: 012 (next, prev) Article: 10 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary
PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 12(012): An end to Great Publishing Myths

Book Review of Tenopir and King on Electronic-Journals

Rollo Turner
Publishing consultant and Secretary General,
Association of Subscription Agents and Intermediaries
10 Lime Avenue
High Wycombe
Bucks HP11 1DP


Reviews Tenopir and King Towards Electronic Journals and describes how the authors shed some much needed light on the usage of scholarly journals generally rather than just electronic journals in an excellent book on the subject. Tenopir and King bring together a considerable body of information on scholarly publishing in both print and electronic form and as a result put an end to some of the great publishing myths.


copyright, citation impact, digital library, electronic archives, electronic publishing, electronic journals, peer review, publication costs, research funding
1. Perhaps the first thing to note about the book is to say that its not really about electronic journals at all! That having been said there is still a lot of very useful information about electronic journals in the 400 odd pages of text. The book is actually about scholarly publishing and therefore of concern to all publishers of scholarly serials literature whether in printed or electronic forms and of course authors, readers, librarians and intermediaries. The subtitle 'realities for scientists, librarians and publishers' is an excellent description of the contents.

2. But what a book it is! At last there is a comprehensive reference work which brings together a great deal of the research done on the readership, usage, publishing and pricing of scholarly journals in the last forty years. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is the sheer wealth of data it provides. Much of the information comes from King Research who are well respected for their research work in the area, but there is also a wealth of other sources to make this a particularly comprehensive examination of the field.

3. One thing that should be noted is that almost all the data in this analysis relates to North America, and specifically the scientific literature as opposed to humanities or social sciences - though the latter do occasionally get a look in. The journals analysed are US, most of the statistics are drawn from research on US scientists and libraries and the majority of the otherwise excellent bibliography (60 pages and about 900 references) are US authored or published. Given that Europe has a very different educational infrastructure than the US, this could be significant but in the end probably isn't since in the scholarly field the behaviour of US and European scientists and librarians is probably not all that different (though publishers might be a very different matter). That having been said there is very little comparable information throughout the rest of the world though it would have been nice to see more references to the work of the many EU and Nationally funded projects in the area of scholarly journals and electronic publishing - for example there does not appear to be a single mention of the Follett Report or PSLI.

4. The data however is invaluable and provides a much needed insight into how much time scientists devote to reading; it points out the differences between personal and library subscription patterns and builds models to describe the substitution of the latter for the former. The book also examines library usage of ILL and the supply of separate articles and builds a model to determine the trade off between subscriptions and ILL. Publishers journal production systems are costed in such a way that the relationships between the various activities are defined and costed separately. I doubt that any publisher would follow these costings exactly or even account for their costs in this way, but they do enable a good picture of the activities undertaken (sub-editing, marketing, distribution etc) to be seen. This approach is interesting because of its thoroughness in ensuring that all relevant costs are included in the model. One may quibble about the actual figures used, many of which are little better really than informed guesswork since publishers rarely divulge this information, but the model seems to accord with common publishing practice. As with all such models they are built on an aggregation of figures and the authors point out, quite correctly, that publishers and libraries economics vary quite widely from the average figures quoted here.

5. The analysis relating to personal subscriptions seems to have a slight flaw in it. According to the authors, one of the significant factors affecting journal price increases has been the dramatic decline in the number of personal subscriptions. That there has been such a decline in the US would appear to be true from the figures quoted but I am unsure whether this has had much impact on the rise of library subscription prices. For one thing although the average number of personal subscriptions per researcher has declined markedly by about 50% according to Tenopir and King, the number of scientists has also increased substantially in that time frame (117%). Hence the number of personal subscriptions should have remained about the same through this period and hence the impact on library prices have been broadly neutral if this analysis.

6. The authors also base their analysis of whether a personal or library subscription will be taken on the amount of readings done by scientists of that particular journal and relate this back to a cost per reading based on the salary costs of a scientists time. This seems to give the right sort of answers but how realistic is this model? My experience as a consultant, publisher and agent would lead me to believe that most personal subscriptions in Europe (and probably also in the USA?) are either society memberships or paid for by the scientists employer. Indeed many employers both academic and commercial pay for society memberships for their employees. The point at which they will switch to a library subscription is therefore likely to be based on the aggregate numbers of personal subscriptions the organisation is buying and whether money can be saved by taking library subscriptions. The effect may be the same but to base the pricing of single journals on the basis that individuals (rather than their employers) make such calculations is likely to be unrealistic.

7. One of the most interesting sections deals with the impact of subscription numbers on the price of journals (both electronic and paper). Tenopir and King quite rightly hammer home the message that the final price of a journal is determined as much by the number of subscribers as by any supposed efficiency or otherwise of the various types of publishers. In this respect it is hardly surprising that when measured on a cost per page bases society journals, with their large circulations to members, seem so much cheaper than specialist low circulation journals published by many commercial publishers. Hopefully it is analysis like this which will begin to inform the current debate on journal costs and pricing which often seem based more on emotions than facts. For this analysis alone the book should be read by all in the serials industry.

8. The wealth of data presented on journal usage is fascinating. It certainly makes one appreciate the heavy use made of printed scientific publications that continues to take place (Tenopir and King estimate 900 readings per article). It would be very interesting to relate this to the reported usage of electronic journals since if print has traditionally been used this intensively it may well be that electronic journals are not widening the market as the conventional wisdom would have it, but merely substituting one form of readership for another. Only further research can tell.

9. The last section devoted to electronic journals is perhaps somewhat the weakest of the sections if only because such journals have only become widely available comparatively recently. We are all just beginning to learn how to buy, use, publish and distribute them and therefore there is far fewer statistics available to the authors. Costs and prices are still not well known and considerable adjustment is likely to take place over the next few years. Nevertheless their analysis of the costs of the journals show an awareness of the many issues and different publication options open to authors these days. Again the authors attempt to include the full costs of scientists use of the electronic literature which turns out to be surprisingly high (based on the value of scientists time of actually finding and retrieving the information electronically). I remain sceptical about whether scientists actually behave in such a logical manner but if in aggregate the effect is correct it will prove a very useful model for publishers, librarians and intermediaries in the future. In the long term of course the cost of use of electronic journals may decline but for now the breakeven between buying an electronic journal and the scientist accessing some free version happens at a surprisingly high number of readings - which if this analysis is to be believed should mean that a library subscription is still a good option.

10. The analysis of electronic journal costs is particularly useful since it shows clearly that many of the same costs of print are applicable to electronic journals, its just the means of distribution that is different. The myth that electronic journals cost nothing to produce is shown up for the fallacy that it undoubtedly is. Some that are 'free' such as LANL, Biomed Central etc are supported by grants grants, others have page charges, but all have costs and are far from free to produce. Even self publishing by authors have costs, the university servers are nor free and the scientists time involved is very costly indeed. The question is then about where the costs should fall, the answer to which is at least as much political as economic and such matters are not addressed in this book. Whether the publishers costs are as stated is always hard to determine but since the benchmarks used have been taken from some well known society publishers (ACS, AIP) then it is fair to assume that those costs are real and fairly generally applicable. This all leads to the inescapable conclusion that electronic journals are not necessarily cheap to produce or buy, and that they are not necessarily more cost effective than paper or single article supply, though that may frequently be the case.

11. Perhaps it is inevitable that I should point out the rather small amount of space devoted to electronic journal intermediaries and aggregators. The authors state that it was not their intention to examine the role of intermediaries in this research, yet in the new world of electronic journals there is considerable choice in how the content can be accessed. Some examination of these issues would have been very interesting but will perhaps have to await a future edition.

12. There are a number of assumptions and figures used by the authors which seem to me to be somewhat at variance with my personal experience. These largely relate to the figures for personal subscription rates and numbers of subscribers quoted for journals which both seem high in the international context (though may be correct for the restricted set of US Science journals examined). These figures were not directly researched by the authors. Although the figures may not be correct they are unlikely to seriously distort the models, just change the point at which subscription versus ILL etc becomes justified. Hence it is possible to plug in other figures and derive a different set of results to test the effect of the models.

13. Overall though this is a book that is well worth the price: in fact its worth a great deal more. It's a reference I will certainly go back to again and again and will help bring much needed clarity to a difficult field.


Tenopir, Carol, and Donald W. King (2000a) Towards Electronic Journals: Realities for Scientists, Librarians, and Publishers. Washington, D.C.: Special Libraries Association.

Tenopir, Carol, and Donald W. King (2000b) Precis of: "Towards Electronic Journals" PSYCOLOQUY 11(084) psyc.00.11.084.electronic-journals.1.tenopir

Volume: 12 (next, prev) Issue: 012 (next, prev) Article: 10 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary