Cost & Access in Digital Material

Plans for a new facility are based on the assumption of a large and growing collection of digital resources. Such a collection should reduce reliance on print collections. Because of the unpredictability in economics and access of digital material, it is important to ensure that we are prepared in terms of space and budget. The underlying assumption may not be the one we imagined.


1. Exhorbitant pricing

  • We have not been able to reach agreement with Academic Press because of a combination of high incremental prices, minimum expenditure requirements, and cost algorithms including non-Lane subscriptions (i.e. departmental and main library titles).
  • American Society for Microbiology (8 titles – $4,000 for digital; $4,000 for print)
  • Nature family (8 titles for $6,800 pending; current expenditure $6,000 for print)
  • CellNeuronImmunity, and Molecular cell (4 titles for $20,000 pending; $2,300 for print)

2. “Free with print”

After an initial offering of free with print, continued access is available at an often steep price.

  • Wiley increased print prices in 2000 by 19%, apparently to cover free access.
  • Of Lane’s 17 BMJ specialty journals, faced with a 70% price increase, we only continued 2 critical titles

3. Pricing volatility

Publishers and aggregators offer various “packages” of titles, including ones we don’t really need, with price inducements. The budget is rapidly committed, leaving limited discretionary purchasing power. The model and pricing often change significantly after a contract ends. Renewals are difficult to coordinate. It is difficult to project next year’s subscription costs.

4. Shifted expenses

Lane has relied on subscription agents to manage over 2,500 subscriptions. Publishers have squeezed agents’ with reduced fees, and agents have tried to contract for exclusive rights to some titles. Pricing arrangements and complexities shift more work to library staff as agents are no longer in a position to provide the same level of service as for print and multiple parties are involved. Digital materials are more costly to manage in staff time and involve higher level staff.

  • Academic Press has reduced print prices (75% off) to end users if libraries subscribe to digital version of a title
  • Highwire is not a homogeneous resource; it reflects policies of its client societies; trouble-shooting and negotiation is on a title-by-title basis.

5. Complex pricing schemes

The types of schemes vary widely by supplier and even within a single supplier, producing a hodge-podge of difficult to manage licenses.

  • Requirement to subscribe to print; digital not available separately
  • Number of students/employees/hospital staff/etc.
  • Number of computers on Internet at Stanford
  • Same title offered by various providers
  • Bundling arrangements can result in overlapping licenses and some titles cannot be subscribed to individually.


Digital materials’ allure is that they’re “always on the shelf” regardless of users’ location. The following illustrate some of the realities in contrast to this ideal. What is actually available varies from day to day and outages are falsely transparent, only reported when a user cannot retrieve a specific article.

1. Many titles are restricted by IP address, which limits off-campus access.

  • VA access a continuing problem
  • University added subnet for dorms; thousands of changes needed to maintain access

2. Various password schemes and proxy initiatives attempt to circumvent IP address problems. Password administration is not insignificant; approximately 1000 contacts per year.

  • Nature monthlies
  • NEJM
  • Lancet
  • Mosby publications

3. Simultaneous user restrictions defray costs at disadvantage to users, especially during peak periods of use.

4. Reciprocal campus agreements reduce control.

Communications complexity sometimes results in service disruptions which are difficult for Lane to resolve. Such problems are the source of administrative expenses mentioned above.

  • Reduced access to Nature (one week and counting) due to factors involving a Dept. and another Library
  • A campus agreement to subscribe to Oncogene in Mar. 2000 only realized in Jan. 2001.

5. “Free” content

Users may mistake a title as current when they retrieve some citations from a particular title that is free, but not realize that the most recent year(s) are not included. This “rolling wall” technique shields the most desirable current material from access; this limitation is difficult to indicate and particularly dangerous in clinical medicine.

  • Clinical and diagnostic laboratory immunology
  • Applied and environmental microbiology

6. Providers’ servers and network access may be interrupted.

  • Cambridge University Press came up in 1999, later their server was down for 5 months; service unreliable for 2000; Lane access added in 2001.

7. Some publishers include or charge for transactional allowances for unsubscribed titles. The temporary broader access to these titles gives an illusion of greater availability, but when transactions are used up, only additional money can once again make the titles available.

  • We offer 182 Elsevier titles via this mechanism. Lane’s allowances are burdened by the Main Library’s not subscribing to any Elsevier digital content

8. Physical restrictions

  • Laryngoscope offers free access on one workstation only with a print subscription.
  • Pediatrics in review restricts access to workstations in the library building.

9. Bureaucratic restrictions

  • Lippincott Williams & Wilkins offers only single workstation access or costly unlimited access; Lane needs pricing based on 1 or 2 concurrent users.
  • Wiley required all campus libraries’ subscriptions be merged under one account for digital access

10. Copyright restrictions and document delivery scanning present complications. Interlibrary loan may be limited depending on licensing terms.

11. Technical problems

Reorganizations of websites and server name changes cause URL links to fail; Lane staff run programs to detect broken links and must fix broken links both in the catalog and on web page.

12. Access may be abruptly interrupted due to our publisher subscription numbers not being up-to-date with a third party, such as Highwire or our subscription agent.

  • NEJM customer number changes annually, causing a break each December

13. NLM admirably provides a “Linkout” service which identifies and links Lane’s digital titles to records in PubMed/Medline. However, only 637 or 1125 of Lane’s digital titles are covered. Lane staff must continually monitor and update records for this service to be up-to-date and reliable.

14. Print and digital materials not always equivalent

Sometimes a print title has content that is not available electronically, or not available immediately, and contrarily sometimes digital versions contain articles not covered in the print version.

  • Pediatrics and Nucleic acids research contain special “epages” articles
  • Nature embargoes all content other than articles for 90 days.

15. Publisher mergers/sales/changes

Titles may suddenly be unavailable due to the sale or merger of a company.

  • Elsevier is purchasing Academic Press and divesting selected titles
  • Differentiation changed from Springer (free with print) to Blackwell (10% increase)

16. Content volatility

Aggregators license content from various providers. Their licenses are subject to change, and content changes are often abrupt and without notice. It is challenging to know precisely what we have licensed at any given time. Business interests tend to supersede experts’ judgement regarding content. As a result, search retrievals may not be reproducible and citation of removed content is spurious.

  • MDConsult removed DeVita. Cancer: principles and practice … and replaced it with an “equivalent” without notification

17. Printing and citation difficulties

Some providers do not supply desired PDF format, which has page numbers and prints like a photocopy. Titles lacking PDFs are not an acceptable substitute for print.

  • Ovid titles mostly lack PDFs; began adding selectively in Oct. 2000 for new content only
  • MDConsult lacks PDFs for all titles

18. Archiving issues

Archival (retrospective) access has only been resolved in a few cases. Such backup is crucial once we relinquish print subscriptions.

  • JSTOR is a model, but has few biomedical titles
  • BioMed Central is a noble attempt, but has not yet reached critical mass
  • SPARC is attempting to circumvent commercial publishers, but has little biomedical content



User expectations for digital access are high, while provider abilities are shaky. The long-term sustainability of the current financial models is questionable. Lane formerly received a special budget increase for serials, but this has been eliminated effective 2002. The assumption of digital materials’ reducing space needs indicates that buffer or contingency funds need to be available in order to protect users against the vagaries of digital availability.

Even with adequate funding, it is important to understand that the above issues occur in a myriad of combinations, which make negotiations, management, and problem-solving especially difficult– and, despite the best of efforts of Lane staff, sporadic unavailability/instability of the digital resources will occur.

Ideally, content would be licensed separately from search interfaces. Industry is trying to deliver both a suite of content and a proprietary interface as a solution. The competing interfaces become a disservice to the user, who is faced with searching multiple ways to retrieve relevant information, as none of the providers can offer all of the desired content. Most users will not persist in searching multiple resources. Such attempts at “branding” of information do not benefit the user. Libraries are in an excellent position to provide interfaces that are neutral regarding the source of the information. Lane is currently attempting to address this situation via new information technologies.

Dick R. Miller
Mary Buttner

Feedback or questions welcome. Contact Dick Miller.

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