The Premise: Academic librarians and scholarly publishers are at each other's throats because we both operate within an irrational economic system. The money that funds subscriptions and licenses is in library budgets, giving librarians an incentive to promote open access publishing and to minimize the contribution of publishers. Since publishers need librarian money, they triumphantly tout their value and market directly to readers now that the library funding stream is at risk.
And so the battle rages. Ertswhile partners have become fierce enemies, thanks to the unsettled economics of the digital age. The tragedy is that librarians need the official record that publishers produce, while publishers need librarians to curate that record indefinitely.
It's enough to make me sing a song from Oklahoma! Why can't the farmer (the publisher) and the cowman (the librarian) just be friends?
Pre-Web this was possible. I believe it is possible again, and the rest of this post will explore how. Surely these ideas have circulated elsewhere, but they are fresh to me and presented here all of a piece.
The Speculation: What if we located the monies that fund scholarly communication somewhere else besides library budgets? As a % of the total dollars invested in research, the cost of publishing research is small. The trouble is that this cost, no matter how small, is borne by the library--an entity whose budget is tiny in relation to the budgets of their host institutions. Even Elsevier's gigantic-seeming journal prices are small if viewed as a percentage of the overall monies devoted to scholarly research. But it's hard to see that when the dwarf (the librarian) must pay the giant.
The Solution: A large scale subvention fund--funded either by the government or a consortium of business interests--would allow for the funding of scholarly publishing in such a way that librarians and publishers are not implacable foes. This would be a third-party fund set up expressly to prevent posturing on all sides. Librarians would be responsible for acquisition and cataloging and curation, as always. But the perverse financial entangling between librarians and publishers--which leads to the creation of consortiums for small universities or scholarly publishing licensing offices at large universities--would be gone.
The Resistance: Librarians would worry that removal of this budget would mean that the library itself would disappear soon. Publishers would worry about collusion, that the subvention fund is a price-control mechanism. Even if these obstacles are overcome, the chances for a government-administered fund in today's political climate are nil. This is why I also promoted the industry-based subvention fund, which I would always support and which may be the only thing that is possible now.
The Caveat: My intention here is not to simply find a larger funding stream so that things can continue as normal. PDFs and monograph chapters are conservative instruments of sholarly communication, invented and matured before the Internet existed. If the Web had existed in 1665, when the first scholarly journal in the West was born, our entire system of scholarly communication would be fundamentally different today. So we should keep pressing, keep innovating, and keep finding new born-digital ways to create and share knowledge.
That said, our current scholarly communication system has plenty of years left in it. The subvention fund described above would stabilize the monies for this system, and establish a foundation in which librarians and publishers can be friends again.
The Payoff: In this scenario, our current scholarly communication system would be protected from price shocks as well as clamorous political protestations. With that quietude in place, librarians and publishers would be poised to collaborate and innovate together. The whole really can be greater than the sum of its parts, once the parts stop fighting.