Money can be a sore subject. When it comes to paying for library resources, no one seems happy, particularly when those resources are government-created. In the U.S., the perception is that, since taxes pay for government document content generation, the content should be free and freely available. Some content, however, is restricted due to security or privacy concerns. You probably don’t want top secret nuclear launch codes made public. Outside the U.S., some countries copyright their government documents, so paying for access is the norm.
Sometimes you just can’t win for losing (a phrase my mother was fond of). The Library of Congress (LC) wants to make previously inaccessible, non-confidential Congressional Research Service reports available, for free, on a new website. Laudable, yes? Not entirely. It’s going to cost $1.5 million, which some see as exorbitant, particularly given the existence of EveryCRSReport.com. However, LC assures us that its version will be authoritative and updated with versioning history.
It’s not just government information. Negotiations between Elsevier and academic consortia in Germany and Sweden stalled earlier this year, and Elsevier is no longer sending updates to previously subscribing libraries. Researchers could opt for OA as an alternative. OA for scholarly publications is now an accepted policy, not ephemeral. It raises questions, however, about who pays article publishing charges (APCs), what an acceptable amount for APCs is, and when a journal is not a reputable place in which to publish. Just how much should an institution spend to provide free information? And perhaps even more important, does free scholarly literature encourage bad science? The jury is still out.
Pricing affects non-scholarly publications as well. News organizations have played around for years with putting articles behind paywalls. Some require registration before they disgorge free articles. On some sites, you pay for everything. Others give you two or five or 10 free articles per month. It’s not set in stone, and the number can change depending on any new strategy devised by the publisher. A challenge for libraries is to help people determine what they can get for free from databases the library already pays for versus what they think they must pay for on their own. Newspapers.com is my particular headache.
Can paying nothing be perceived as predatory pricing? This charge is leveled against Google, with the assumption that making its Android operating system free encourages people to use the Google search engine and depend upon the accuracy of its search results. The suspicion exists that those results are tilted toward bringing in more advertising money to Google.
Whatever you think of the various pricing mechanisms, it’s clear that someone somewhere has to pay the piper. It could be libraries, taxpayers, researchers, employers, or funding agencies. Just because something is free to read on the web doesn’t mean there’s not a cost in there somewhere, even when it’s not the reader who’s paying.
The relationship of price to value remains mysterious. If there’s a piper to pay, it’s up to information professionals to choose wisely about which piper that is.