#inaspPrinciples for publishers 3: Avoid making sudden changes

– for full list of the principles see here

I’ve had the privilege of travelling to many of the countries in which INASP works. In most of the cities I have visited, I find that my hosts have a kind of inverse pride in their traffic jams. I have been told that the jams are worst in Dhaka, in Nairobi, in Hanoi, in Dar es Salaam… I wouldn’t put it to the vote, but I have sat in hot cars for many hours in all those cities. And that was in a car, not reliant on public transport which may or may not show up, or have space. This affects the ability of people to plan ahead; even with allowances for the “jams”, one cannot set arrival times with any confidence. It also limits the number of places one can plan to get to in a day, so we have learned not to have more than two or three appointments in a day in, say, Nairobi.

Why talk about traffic jams? Because it’s a useful illustration of one of the many challenges of day-to-day life and work, and what can be accomplished – even by those in professional roles in universities or government – in any given day. The same can be true of bureaucratic and administrative processes. Getting things done simply takes time. So, to our third principle, it’s important to avoid sudden changes – to processes, content, platforms, and pricing. And when changes are needed, it’s important to explain plans early and give consortia time to prepare.

Getting things done

Public administration systems in many developing countries are not as responsive as those in more established bureaucratic systems. Change may be slow due to lengthy administrative process in place and also the shortage of people to run these systems. Decisions may be delayed as a key signatory hasn’t been able to get through the traffic to a meeting, or power failures or IT problems might slow down day-to-day work. In Harare, phone lines are often stolen as thieves make a good income from the sale of copper cable.

Consortia’s ability to respond to change

Our consortium advisor from Costa Rica, María Eugenia Briceño Meza, explains that fiscal years in Latin American countries are generally different from those in the US and Europe. In Costa Rica, operational plans are presented for consideration by the institutional authorities during April-May. The fiscal year generally runs from September to August, so the annual budget planning should therefore be executed before this closure in September. When subscription years run from January to December, this means consortia and their member institutions have to estimate expenditure eight months in advance. A three to five-year plan for engagement is likely to be more effective than an annual plan and process.

Consortia are in their nature consultative bodies, drawing on the experience and expertise of member institutions. Those representing institutions have full-time jobs and serve the consortium on a voluntary basis. In addition to a consortium’s planning processes, they depend on institutions to contribute funding and expertise – and thus are dependent on multiple, varying schedules within each institution.

In most cases, consortia collect funds from member libraries, which must be secured through institutional budgeting mechanisms. Even when financial years are more closely aligned to subscription years, this can take a considerable amount of time so long-term planning is important.

Communicating change and engaging with customers

As Mercedes stresses, communicating regularly with consortia and libraries about any changes in platform, provision or pricing enables them to make the necessary preparations. Mailing lists and announcements are an effective way to achieve this. In Costa Rica, some publishers have arranged annual events with their clients and potential clients where they share their latest news and changes for the upcoming periods. Another practice which has been welcomed is the invitation of developing-country customers (usually librarians) into publisher advisory or consultative groups where they can meet, often electronically, to assess new products and projects and provide suggestions and information about the appropriateness and relevance of the product for a region, country or type of institution.

Changes in content

In Maria Eugenia’s experience, difficult situations have arisen when two publishers have merged or one of these has acquired the products of another and this has meant a substantial increase in price or even changes to pre-established contracts. While it is seldom possible to share information about mergers and takeovers in advance, the more information that is shared, the easier it is for consortia and libraries to plan and the easier it is to accommodate change. While content has not changed (so far) Springer and Macmillan have had a very effective and inclusive communication campaign about their recent merger.

Maria Eugenia notes that while mergers have enriched content considerably, they may also increase the price disproportionately from one year to another, which translates into an economic imbalance for the consortium if it continues its subscription to the product.

Mercedes Tinoco from Nicaragua welcomes changes when they benefit members of the consortium. However, she points out that the consortium works on consensual decisions by the members, as well as a jointly developed work plan, and this makes adjustments to sudden changes a difficult task. She recommends that publishers consult the consortium prior to making changes in order to ensure that the outcomes of these changes benefit both parties, such as increasing content to mirror increasing costs.

Platform changes

Smaller or rural institutions in developing countries may lack technical staff or systems librarians. As we identified in an earlier blog, consortia in developing countries often provide technical expertise to such libraries. Publishers correctly and appropriately make platform changes to improve their services. The earlier these are communicated, the easier it is to plan for this technical support. This could involve a single person travelling around the consortium member libraries to implement any updates to firewalls or links from library websites, so may cause breaks in access for researchers. This affects all customers and we would like to commend those publishers whose platform changes now include a period where old links redirect, which benefits customers across the board. Mercedes notes that EBSCO has adapted its content and platforms to fit the specific Central American context with good results.

Changes in processes

There are times when payment processes in their nature have to progress – publishers merge and change names or open new bank accounts to receive payments. Developing countries are often very aware of the possibilities of corruption, so have extensive processes in place to make payments, particularly when this involves the international transfer of substantial (in their terms) sums of money to pay for resources. Consortia and institutions have developed a system of safeguards, many of which include physical countersigning of all foreign exchange payments, thus carrying the documents around the city to reach several member institutions. Many consortia (or, indeed, their banks) also require documentation to work around a tender system, and have to repeat this process if there are name changes for their suppliers, or different bank details for the transfers, so publishers need to be willing and able to provide this documentation on request.

So, what can you do? Understand the limitations on consortia’s ability to respond to change. Communicate well in advance and be patient when messages and processes take a long time. Include developing country members in your consultations.

Join the conversation by following us on Twitter, and using the hashtag #inaspPrinciples.  More information can be found on the Publishers for Development website and registration for the London conference on the 30th June is still open here.

Anne Powell
Anne Powell is the Programme Manager, Information Access and Use at INASP.

2 Responses to “#inaspPrinciples for publishers 3: Avoid making sudden changes

  • Hello Anne, change is a fact of life and there is no way one can avoid it. Hope you have not forgotten Jams in Uganda. There is +ve and -ve change but we have to adjust bearing in mind that it is there. Let’s forge a way for reality to do the miracle

  • As much as change is a fact of life that we have to contend with, it is important for it to be gradual so as not to disrupt the status in a negative way. Most of the publishers that we deal with outside INASP have always given prior warnings when there are anticipated changes in their platforms, content and even pricing. This helps the consortium to alert the members in turn.

    When it comes to changes in pricing, we have experienced rare cases when the changes are very drastic and this has not gone down well with the consortium members. This has gone to an extent that in the absence of agreement between the publisher and the consortium, we have had to drop the resource. As emphasized before in earlier principles, I do not think there are many departments in our universities/institutes that have to fight for their space like the library in terms of budget allocations. When we get drastic price increases in products without prior arrangements, it is very difficult to convince our institutional managers to increase our budgets.

    It is therefore necessary to have gradual changes that can be accommodated at the pace that is acceptable. Constant communication is necessary and I am glad to see this happening with some of the publishers who have invested alot in terms of having representatives dedicated to different markets.