[mp3 here]

Last week, Andrew Odlyzko [wikipedia] a mathematician and historian, and former head of the University of Minnesota's Digital Technology Center, posted a research paper that concludes that the data suggest that libraries are losing their competition with the publishers of academic journals. Andrew is a long-time open access advocate, so he's not saying this is a good thing. But he is a data-driven historian.

So I gave him a call, and we talked for about 25 minutes about the paper, and more generally about the role of curators in an age of free or cheap abundance. You can listen here.

Here's Andrew's abstract:

Discussions of the economics of scholarly communication are usually devoted to Open Access, rising journal prices, publisher profits, and boycotts. That ignores what seems a much more important development in this market. Publishers, through the oft-reviled "Big Deal" packages, are providing much greater and more egalitarian access to the journal literature, an approximation to true Open Access. In the process they're also marginalizing libraries, and obtaining a greater share of the resources going into scholarly communication. This is enabling a continuation of publisher profits as well as of what for decades has been called "unsustainable journal price escalation." It is also inhibiting the spread of Open Access, and potentially leading to an oligopoly of publishers controlling distribution through large-scale licensing.

The "Big Deal" practices are worth studying for several general reasons. The degree to which publishers succeed in diminishing the role of libraries may be an indicator of the degree and speed at which universities transform themselves. More importantly, these "Big Deals" appear to point the way to the future of the whole economy, where progress is characterized by declining privacy, increasing price discrimination, increasing opaqueness in pricing, increasing reliance on low-paid or unpaid work of others for profits, and business models that depend on customer inertia.