Subscription publishers do not want my business.

Today I learned something very important and depressing about subscription-based academic publishing.

With the Wilsdon review of metrics happening, I’ve thought for a while that it’d be very useful to have access to the Springer journal Scientometrics. That way, I can learn more about the topic at hand and dig deeper into particular issues, both in the run-up to the report’s publication on 9 July, and afterwards as the review’s findings start to have real relevance to policy activities in my team. Of course, working for a government body means having absolutely zero subscription access to academic journals, so any access I get to scientific or scholarly literature has to happen via one of the following routes:

  1. gold open access articles
  2. manuscript postings (green open access)
  3. private sharing (emailing the author or asking around for a copy)
  4. personal purchases of subscription content

For Scientometrics, it’s got a bit tiring to be continually asking around for copies or checking Google Scholar for repository copies every time I want to read an article. I can’t afford to pay £29.95 every time I want to access interesting and relevant articles (such as the extremely germane “What do scientists think about the impact factor?” DOI 10.1007/s11192-012-0676-y). So, with a heavy heart, I thought I’d investigate a personal subscription to the journal.

From that article, I clicked on the Get Access link, and was presented with a choice: pay the £29.95 for a PDF of that one article, or: “Log in to your account to check if you already have access to this content.” I didn’t have a Springer account, but thought creating one might help me to get subscribed. Clicking on that link took me to the home page of SpringerLink, a portal for accessing Springer online journals. Via that page, I was able to create an account. There was seemingly no way to manage subscriptions from that page, so, armed with my new account, I went back to the article page, clicked on the Get Access link, and promptly got the same “Log in to your account” message. I was stuck in a loop.

I then realised I might be approaching this problem in the wrong way. I didn’t want access to that article; I wanted access to the whole journal. So, I visited the web page of the journal itself. Here, I was given that same option to Get Access, which seemed like it might be more promising. I clicked that link and was presented with the following message:

This content is preview-only. Log-in to access content for which you already have a license, or contact your librarian or administrator and ask them to speak to their Springer representative about our range of tailored licensing models.

I was logged in, of course. I can only assume that by telling me that I wasn’t logged in, Springer was telling me what I already knew: I didn’t have a subscription to that journal. And I don’t have a librarian. I do have an administrator, but I seriously doubt she has her own Springer representative. And anyway, this was supposed to be a personal subscription, and as such I’d rather be sorting it out myself.

So I clicked on the link to take me through to find my Springer representative. A page of different categories of sales contacts presented itself: academic sales contacts, corporate and health sales contacts, and other sales contacts. Not being an academic library or a corporate or health user, I’m definitely ‘other’. What’s under ‘other’? Government, or Agent Relations, or an invitation to try contacting their customer services department. 

Well, not being quite ready to resort to picking up the phone to the customer services people, I thought perhaps that Government link would be the one for me. That could be closest, right? On the linked page, I found the name of a person who, if contacted, might be able to provide me with information about setting up a government subscription to Scientometrics if my government were in northwest Europe. Hmm. Forgive me for being a doubting Thomas, but I didn’t think that would likely get me very far. 

Finally, I was destined to end up calling their “customer services department”. I clicked on that link and was faced with that disappointing, yet all-too-familiar, experience of the modern Web: “For questions about Library services at Springer, you can fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.”

It doesn’t end there, though it probably should have. It turns out that the journal Scientometrics is jointly published with Akadémiai Kiadó, a central European publisher. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I had a circuitous and fruitless experience on their website, too, picking through swathes of Hungarian and lorem ipsum placeholder text. I do, however, now have an account with Akadémiai Kiadó, though it doesn’t allow me to do useful things like subscribe to journals or access anything. I have, however, been promised an email with an account activation link in it, which, while it doesn’t appear to have arrived yet, might eventually turn up in my spam folder. But in truth, I have now given up trying to subscribe to Scientometrics. 

What’s the point of all of this?

Well, for one thing, it is not to pick on Springer. I had an almost identical experience with Wiley a few months back while trying to subscribe to JASIST, which was eventually solved by joining the association. Now, forgive the generalisation, but I never thought that it would be easier to join an academic subject association – particularly as a non-academic – than to pay to access the digital content of a company whose entire business model depends on selling access to said content.

If my experiences are the same as others’ in my situation, then this is a fundamentally stupid state of affairs for publishing and academia alike. If it is almost impossible for people to subscribe to subscription-based journals – even for honest and willing people like me who (a) are tired of going through the rigmarole of searching out free copies of articles, (b) might be willing to pay for a personal subscription, provided it’s easy to set up and not too expensive, and (c) are pretty savvy when it comes to using technology and the Web – then what hope can publishers and academics have of their work reaching a wider audience?

I despair.