Research librarians have asked the U.S. government to block one of the biggest-ever science publishing mergers, citing concerns about spiraling subscription prices and the growing concentration of academic journal ownership. On 27 October, the European journal giant Reed Elsevier announced that it will swallow American rival Harcourt General for $4.5 billion, creating the world's largest biomedical publisher and a global company with more than 1500 journals.
The current confrontation began in June, when Harcourt General--a $2 billion publishing empire that owns Academic Press and nearly 450 science and technical journals--announced that it was for sale. Attracted by the prospect of adding thoroughbred titles, such as The Journal of Molecular Biology, to its existing $1 billion stable of 1100 journals, Reed Elsevier officials entered the bidding. Company executives say the deal will improve efficiency and benefit consumers by bringing related titles under one roof.
But librarians say the merger will drive up journal prices and reduce the flow of scholarly information. The planned union of Reed Elsevier and Harcourt "will have severe repercussions for libraries, researchers, and the public," predicts Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries in Washington, D.C. "This transaction should be prevented," he wrote to U.S. Department of Justice regulators.
Webster's warning is backed up by research by Mark McCabe, an economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He found that subscription prices for Elsevier's new titles jumped by an average of 27% within a few years after its purchase of Pergamon Press in 1991. McCabe says that the proposed merger appears to fail at least one traditional test of antitrust law, by creating a company that controls more than one-third of a given market--in this case, the market for high-quality biomedical journals. By his count, the new company would own 34% of 1240 mainstream biomedical journals tracked by the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
If regulators do find an antitrust problem, Reed Elsevier may be forced to sell some journals, analysts say. But few of those contacted by Science believe that requirement would kill the deal. Any hint of trouble for this merger may not surface for months, however, because analysts predict the regulatory review could continue well into 2001.