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  Advancing Scholarly Communication Contact:
Julia Blixrud
The Market

Serial Expenditures in ARL Libraries

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Several apparent trends in serial counts and serial unit cost are largely artifacts of changing practices in counting serial subscriptions. Changes in the pricing models publishers are using for electronic journals have had an observable effect on the data collected on serial prices and consequently the serial unit cost ARL calculates. These changes do not necessarily reflect increased collecting of new content or reductions in the real costs of collection maintenance but are largely reporting increased collecting of long-held subscriptions in multiple formats. In the late 1990s many e-journals were sold as free add-ons to existing print subscriptions. Initially, these subscriptions were counted as single subscriptions (one title received in both print and electronic form). This meant that the addition of electronic formats to earlier print subscriptions did not create an immediately observable increase in subscription counts. Beginning with the 2002 statistics, ARL responded to the increasingly common practice of pricing e-journals as either added charges to print subscriptions or as stand-alone subscriptions by allowing libraries to count a title received in two formats as two subscriptions. While not all members immediately adopted this practice, over the last several years the new counting practice, in combination with burgeoning collecting of e-versions of long-held print subscriptions, has begun to generate a noticeable increase in serial collection counts. Over time, as many libraries begin to reduce multi-format duplication by moving to e-only subscriptions for titles, the overall serial counts may decrease. This effect may already be visible in some members’ individual statistics.

Similarly serial expenditures have increasingly included added payments made by members to provide journals in electronic form in addition to print. Added expenditure, therefore, may not reflect the addition of new content to a collection. In fact, it is possible for a library’s count of unique titles to shrink while both serials counts and expenditures increase if titles are cancelled to provide funds to add electronic versions of other titles collected.

Since serial unit cost is based on serial counts divided by serial expenditures, these changes in the journals marketplace and in library purchasing patterns are affecting the serial unit cost reported. While the serial unit cost is decreasing, this mainly reflects changes in what is being counted. Increasingly libraries are making multiple payments for content in different forms and paying for subscriptions that are linked together. When many journal subscription costs are incremental add-ons to existing subscriptions for a second format, the unit cost is substantially reduced. Where a library starts paying $20 as an add-on for e-access to a subscription that formerly cost $100, the unit cost for the now two subscriptions becomes $60. Without adding new content to the collection, a unit subscription cost based on the "two" titles has been reduced by 40%.

Over time, it could be expected that new trends in member counts of serials purchased, serial expenditures, and serial unit cost will emerge as the practices of both libraries and publishers stabilize. For now the patterns presented by recent data in comparison to data from the era of print-dominated collecting reflect the disruption of a paradigm shift rather than incremental relative change.

The unit cost of a serial subscription that ARL has tracked becomes relatively uninformative in a world where research libraries are increasingly offering access to the same serial title via multiple subscriptions and interfaces. The impact of electronic publishing on research library investment in serials was one of the forces behind a recommendation to move away from tracking serial subscriptions and towards tracking serial titles. The ARL Statistics 2005–06 is the last time ARL will publish a unit cost for serial subscriptions.