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SPARC Produces a Warm Response From Elsevier Science


July 31, 1998: In response to recent rapid increases in the price of some commercially published science journals, the North American based Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has created the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which will seek partnerships with member libraries and institutions, scholarly societies, university presses, and other organizations, including publishers, who are interested in promoting a more competitive marketplace for research information. In particular, SPARC will endorse new publishing ventures that it considers "give fair value for money." Financing for this venture is provided by a contribution of $5000.00 each from 80 of ARL's member libraries.

In an article about the SPARC initiative, Mary M. Case, ARL's Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, claimed, in support of the contention that some journal prices far exceed cost, that:

... on average, an ARL library spends almost $628,000 dollars a year with Elsevier Science to obtain 378 titles. That is 3.5% of the serials titles subscribed to by a library but almost 21% of the annual serials expenditures.

This prompted a response from Karen Hunter of Elsevier Science who wrote, in a letter published in the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues:

Even setting aside the problem of what titles are counted as “serials” (for we all know that all serials are not the same and there are many non-comparable items under this term), this is very misleading.
Elsevier’s journals are larger than most publishers.’ Many of our journals exceed 1000 articles per year. And price is directly related to size.
While it is impossible to be specific without detailed library-by-library analysis, it is clear that the ARL libraries have a collection weighted by the larger, more expensive titles (as the average for our whole list is much lower than the $1,661 average represented in the ARL figures).
If one assumes that the ARL libraries are buying Elsevier journals roughly proportional to the article coverage by ISI, it is likely those 3.5% of the titles are providing 18-20% of the journal articles coming into these libraries (depending on the field). In other words, the discrepancy between price and the amount of material received may not be significant at all.
I have sometimes thought that we should divide all of the larger journals into quarterlies, thereby reducing the cost per title dramatically. Think about it -- 13 separate quarterly journals instead of one weekly. Of course, this would be much less efficient for scientists and library technical services, but it would help in the statistics battle.
As I told an audience during a recent presentation, I and others at Elsevier have turned the other cheek so many times recently that we feel like we're watching a tennis match. I recognize the desire of ARL and some of its member librarians to create alternatives and to support some of our not-for-profit competitors. I would simply ask for much more care in the statements being made, as that will foster co-operation.


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