EBSCO Exclusives Trigger Turmoil
Posted On January 28, 2010
On Jan. 16, 2010, at the ALA Midwinter meeting, EBSCO Publishing (www.ebscohost.com) announced a number of new acquisitions for its collection of full-text journal archives. Major among the listings were the magazines produced by Time, Inc. (www.timeinc.com) as well as Forbes. The contracts for these acquisitions were exclusive to EBSCO for the library "marketspace." Some of the statements made at the meeting, not to mention the loss of access to marquis publications, led Gale, a part of Cengage Learning (www.gale.cengage.com), a major competitor to EBSCO, to issue a letter to the library community. The letter refuted elements in EBSCO's description of the Time contract process and urged librarians to get involved in opposing publishers granting exclusives, at least to EBSCO. A few days later, EBSCO responded with its own letter, defending its efforts in the interest of librarians and adding a couple of barbed remarks about Gale. The two combatants both followed up with further details, remarks, and "corrections." But when the dust settled, unresolved issues remained.
Melees such as this are conducted digitally these days, leaving a blow-by-blow record. Nonetheless, a flurry of all too traditional "he said/she said" rumors still surrounded the digitized punch-up. So let's see if we can document the tale.
First, what did EBSCO say at the ALA Midwinter meeting? The best source for this seems to be Paul Pival, public services systems librarian at the University of Calgary and blogger at The Distant Librarian (www.distlib.blogs.com). Pival took pictures of all the slides presented by EBSCO at the session. (Thus, smartphones doth make Jack Bauers of us all.) The exclusive popular publications that appeared on EBSCO's slides, according to Pival, included TIME, History Today, People Weekly, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report (a title which rumors state is not yet signed), Entrepreneur, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Kiplinger, Money, and New Scientist. Some of the titles, e.g., Harvard Business Review, have been exclusive with EBSCO for quite some time.
Most of the titles derive from a new contract with Time, Inc. based on an RFP that Time put out and on which several information industry firms bid, including EBSCO's primary competitors, Gale and ProQuest. One of the stipulations in the RFP was apparently that Time wanted one firm handling the licensing of its electronic content, not the several it had been dealing with. EBSCO reportedly won the contract, due in major part to a substantial monetary investment, an investment that guaranteed exclusivity to its products. EBSCO also indicated that the publisher had insisted.
This is where it starts getting complicated. What did the Time RFP mean by a single source? A single aggregator or a single distributor to the library market? Gale and ProQuest historically have licensed their aggregated content to outside search services, e.g., Factiva, Dialog (now owned by ProQuest), and LexisNexis. EBSCO has kept exclusives in its own product packages.
Gale Fires a Shot
The "open letter to the library community" (www.gale.cengage.com/fairaccess/index.htm) by John Barnes, executive vice president of marketing and business development at Gale, decried EBSCO's long-standing strategy of acquiring exclusive licensing agreements instead of following a policy of sublicensing to other outlets. Gale pointed out that EBSCO pays premium prices to gain these exclusives and claimed that libraries would end up paying higher costs as a result. It urged librarians to oppose the action, to join the Facebook group set up by Gale called Librarians for Fair Access to Content (www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=294859370125), to alert other colleagues, to urge publishers to resist the temptation, and to stay in touch with similar-minded information providers, including sending emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. (For further comments from Gale and responding librarians, check out http://blog.gale.com/sizzle/uncategorized/equity-of-access-join-the-debate.)
This isn't the first time that Gale has had to strip content due to EBSCO's acquisition of a product. Gale stopped adding to the InfoTrac archive of Consumer Reports in mid-June 2009. In an interview with Barnes, he indicated that the company will have to remove 25 years of backfiles for TIME by the end of the year. The "timeline for Forbes is shorter, but EBSCO will push for all backfiles." Barnes was clearly worried about EBSCO extending a push for exclusives that has proved successful in sales to academic libraries to those popular magazines and news magazines with greater appeal to public and school libraries. He stated, "We're just trying to set the record straight. We've kept quiet for many years, but this [the statements made at ALA] was too much."
EBSCO Fires Back
In an official response to Gale's Open Letter (www.ebscohost.com/special/temp01-2010/EP-Response-to-Gale.pdf), Sam Brooks, senior vice president of EBSCO Publishing, defended the company's advocacy of library interests and its policies for creating premium products. Brooks was clearly proud of EBSCO's achievement in collecting "the most important general periodicals" by which "many libraries can save money by avoiding full-text database vendor duplication." He added a bit of a dig, saying, "It is understandable that Gale would be upset about this, but the reality is that they had the opportunity to make the necessary investment to retain the content on behalf of their customers. Now that they no longer have to pay for many very important publications, it will be interesting to see if they will be providing substantial discounts to their existing customers."
To this, Gale's Barnes responded:
Gale takes the position that exclusive licensing agreements are bad for libraries because they drive up costs and restrict access to information. The issue involves more than just one periodicals publisher. There's a long history of publishers being approached preemptively with exclusive agreements by one aggregator. We abhor this practice as it is not in the best interests of libraries, and it is why Gale participates in no exclusive licensing agreements with periodical publishers.
Another Gale representative added:
Our position regarding pricing is that Gale held prices on electronic resources last year and are doing so again this year-in spite of adding thousands of titles to our periodicals resources. Titles ebb and flow continually in resources. We don't charge more when we add content. We try to keep stability in pricing-both ways.
When approached with questions by the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) and the State Librarian of Arizona, EBSCO provided further details. The document titled ICOLC Questions With EBSCO's Answers (www.ebscohost.com/special/temp01-2010/ICOLC-Questions-with-EBSCOs-Answers.pdf) provides a very lengthy list of periodical titles available from EBSCO but not through Gale or ProQuest or those that are expected to soon drop off those competitors. Brooks confirms the list with two exceptions. GladysAnn Wells, Arizona State Librarian, asked EBSCO whether it was the only one claiming exclusives to which EBSCO responded in the negative (www.ebscohost.com/special/temp01-2010/ASL-Question-and-EBSCO-Answer.pdf). EBSCO pointed to all the newspapers held by ProQuest. In Barnes' statement above, Gale denies participating in any exclusive arrangements with periodical publishers, and the exclusives named by EBSCO seem to fall in the category of services or features, e.g., VoiceCorp.'s ReadSpeaker and Grokker's Visual Search.
Here's the bottom line: When the dust clears, will everyone who wants this content have a way to get to it? Well, that remains to be seen. Leading search services that have used Gale and/or ProQuest to supply periodical full-text feeds are scrambling. A spokesperson for LexisNexis stated:
We expect no immediate interruption in the availability of any Time, Inc. publications on the LexisNexis service. LexisNexis remains in discussions with EBSCO regarding future distribution rights for the corporate, legal, and academic markets for all Time, Inc. publications.
The content acquisition staff at another major search service is placing calls to EBSCO. In fact, Kevin Norris, head of global content alliances at ProQuest, told us that he too has "called, but-shockingly-they're not ringing back and I don't expect them too."
If the search services that merge Time publications and Forbes into their vast content collections do not find some way to retain that content, what happens to users? Well, they can scatter and start searching publisher websites (immune to the exclusivity clauses). Ironically, TIME magazine has its full archives available on its website for free. Gale and/or ProQuest may also find a way to build federated search tools or other technological tricks to integrate access routes to the publisher websites with their existing databases.
Are there any other alternatives? Actually EBSCO does have one rather specific route to open up its content-alumni editions for academic library subscribers to Academic Search Premier /Academic Search Complete and Business Source Premier/Business Source Complete. Using these services, academic librarians can make sure that students do not lose access to the prized databases the librarians have been teaching and encouraging them to use throughout their education upon graduation. An EBSCO representative did warn, however, that these editions were "for personal use by alumni members. Access can not be ‘sold' to alumni members and alumni access is not for corporate use."
Nonetheless, the unbroken flow of information to existing search services or, perhaps, the expansion of EBSCO's outreach for its databases remain issues to watch.
And then there's the role librarians might play in solving the problem of exclusives. Michael McCully of the San Diego Public Library, in an online muse he permitted us to publish, states, "I believe there's a ground swell feeling that there needs to be an honorable halt to the practice-for the good of access for all. We have to start now, and salvage the future, or more and more *locked out* content is gone behind exclusive walls."