Subscription trends of foreign journals at university libraries in Japan  ←Back

Library management. Vol.18, no.1/2, p.92-97 (1997)

Toyohiro Hasegawa:
Toyohiro Haseagawa is Chief Librarian at the Tsurumi University Library, Japan

Tsurumi University Library
1-3 Tsurumi 2chome, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama
230-8501 Japan

"Internet for Librarian"

Up until now, university and college libraries in Japan have managed to cope with various changing elements. The ever increasing costs of serials publications has been met thanks to the steady yearly increase of library budgets, the Yen's appreciation and the efforts of subscriptions agents. These favorable conditions however, are not expected to continue. In order to effectively offer information services to patrons in the future, university and college libraries must consider various alternatives. These options will include methods such as out-sourcing, the secondary publishing market and information literacy.

0. History and background

This article deals with the various problems which librarians handling foreign journal subscriptions in Japan must face. These difficulties are wide ranging. They include the inevitable frustrations of missing issues, the agents own system of Yen pricing, new systems and policies adopted by local Japanese agents and the increase in competition that exists between these agents. This article also deals with the debate over literature value, the remarkably high Yen appreciation, as well as the recent introduction and direct participation of Western publishing companies in the Japanese market.

It has been a while since the publication "Serials Crisis", yet the great debate over the quality of libraries and the service they provide in terms of literature continues. As the twentieth century draws to a close, there is increased concern as to whether the circulation of academic information will continue to assume the present format of simply disseminating information from right to left or whether it will change to incorporate a different pattern. As such the time has come for agents, publishers and researchers alike to address these kinds of issues and determine whether a new system can be adopted.

This article examines the positive as well as the negative elements of purchasing foreign journal subscriptions in the Japanese market. The downside of purchasing foreign journals questions the area of literature value, whereas the positive elements highlight the advantages of yen appreciation and agent cooperation.

1. The Process for Journal Subscriptions

Subscribing to journals in Japan is a fixed process between libraries and the agents. The publisher receives the order and money from the agent and then sends each issue of the journal directly to the library involved as they are published. Although there are occasions where agents are by passed, this is unusual and the agents continue to play their pivotal role in journal subscription in the Japanese market. Especially in the case of university libraries almost all purchases are made through agents.

In order to subscribe to Western journals there are basic rules that apply.

It is along these basic lines that journal subscriptions are processed and ordered each year. The time schedule for journal subscription is dependent on the combination of four patterns: (1) the library concerned belongs to a national/public university or a private university, (2) the library signs up with a domestic agent or a foreign agent, (3) issues are sent to the library by direct delivery from publishers or by a check-in method, and (4) subscriptions are ordered by a private free contract (contract ad libitum) or competitive bidding. The procedure thus varies, depending on the individual factors, but the time frames for completion of each stage of the subscription cycle are normally as outlined in the table below.

Table 1 Yearly Schedule for Foreign Journal Subscription

[Foreign Journal Agents] 
Start of Contract Preparation by local agents *1


[All University Libraries] 
Addition and Deletion of the next year titles


[National Libraries] 
Competitive Tenders Preparation of voluntary contracts *2


[Public Libraries] 
Decision on next year titles
Subscription of titles through agent

 [Local Japanese Agents] 
Pricing Invoice

End of October

[All Libraries] 
Agents and the negotiating of pricing *3

 [Local Japanese Agents] 
Orders to the Publishers, Money sent *4

Beginning of December

[University Libraries] 
Fixing Prices

 [Local Japanese agents] 
Pricing Invoice

 [Private University Libraries] 
Contract , Payments to agents

Beginning of March

[All University Libraries] 
Settlement of Accounts


[National University Libraries] 
Contracts, Payment to the Agents *4

*1 Early Contracts:There is a 3% discount for those who place their orders with the agents in Autumn and pay in Spring.

*2 Competitive Tender: There are three types of contracts that exist. The basic competitive contract, the designated competitive contract and the voluntary contract. Depending on the libraries subscription materials, up until now the voluntary contract has been taken. According to the introduction of the past years competitive principle, however, the competitive tender contracts will become effective hereto and the agents pricing much more competitive.

*3 The Methods of Calculating Value: There are 3 ways in which the price value is calculated. They are the coefficient method, catalogue price method and the separate title price structure method. The coefficient method is calculated by placing a markup price on the actual recommended publisher's price. The catalogue price method shows the yen price as calculated and fixed in the agents catalogue. The separate title price structure method allows for various special considerations. These are dependent on issues such as price structure, the actual country of publication, the currency or number of copies in circulation and some trading agreements with agents and publishers.

*4 Payment Period: Private universities pay the agent at the end of each year prior to the subscription volume. National universities, under strict constraint from the Ministry of Education, pay during the financial year to which the journals are subscribed.

2. Various Problems Surrounding Journal Worth - The Negative Points

As highlighted in the article "University Libraries and Academic Communication", with the distribution of academic information hammered by problems of burdening shelf space, reduced finances and the current state of publishers, there are great expectations for the coming electronic age to bring about an effective and economical solution.

2.1. A Summary of University Libraries and `Academic Communication

Research Part 1: Present Condition of Academic Libraries

  1. As a percentage of the overall university's budget, libraries have not been able to increase their spending. They have instead seen steady reductions in their allotment.
  2. Material fees and bookbinding: Finance for material subscription has continued to be a fixed part of the budget but separate volumes and serial publications finance has actually been redistributed.
  3. Separate Volumes: Between 1970 and 1980, the spending on academic and research materials was curtailed. Budgets decreased however, national and foreign publications continued to increase in the number of titles produced.
  4. Serial Publications : Many people are talking about the serials crisis and the value of journals. In particular the natural science journals are proving to be a problem as to their worth
  5. Over the past twenty years, the percentage of labor costs has decreased but operation costs have increased.
Research Part 2 : The Future of Electronics
  1. The new electronic situation presents various problems for librarians.
  2. Libraries have been trying to automate their facilities. This has occurred with the introduction of technology in the lending, contents and acquisition divisions.
  3. Presently, there are many types of electronic publications.
  4. One aspect in particular that must be attended to, is the importance of establishing a system for identifying the authors of research in electronic journal publications. The more conservative academics also need to recognize these methods.
  5. The cost of electronic texts is not fixed.
  6. Communication systems and campus networks need to be continually upgraded to cope with the new surge in technological possibilities presently at hand.
  7. With such dramatic technological change there will probably be a change in the publishers traditional role.
Comparing the Japanese and the U.S. national libraries their circumstances appear much the same. The private university libraries differ quite dramatically due to the level of technology available(see Table 2) and the problem of literary value becomes most urgent in the distribution of more western journals.

2.2. Ministry of Education University Libraries Report

The percentage reduction in the library finance report of national libraries, like the United States is quite marked.

The library budget percentage has tightened with regards to material fees. This reduction can be seen in both national as well as private university libraries but the reduction in the national libraries is the greater of the two. In America there has been a redistribution of the labor costs to the operation costs, whereas in Japan, there has been a shift from resource costing to operation costing. In the comparison of journal fees as opposed to book fees, there is a greater weight being placed on the journals. This trend is one that is also reflected in the United States. This then broadly reflects the similar tendencies of national libraries on the wider, international scale.

In national libraries the emphasis placed on modernizing the equipment is seemingly of paramount importance. After updating the library's administration side, there is a strong will to promote inter-academic LAN systems, the Internet, multimedia and ultimately the development and expansion of the electronic publication library. The modernization of Japanese private university libraries however, is not able to reach the same level progress and development. This is understandably due to the financial restrictions placed upon these institutions.

Table 2 Libraries Distribution of Expenses 1983 and 1993  detail 
National '83
National '93
Private '83
Private '93
Resource Fees
Book Budget
Japanese book budget
Western book budget
Japanese journals budget
Western journals budget
Total Budget 
Material Fees :a
Labour Costs :b
Operation costs :c
Total Universities Budget
Total budget : a + b + c
Total budget increase in relation to the year 1983
Libraries total budget 
Universities total budget

*According to the Ministry of Education University Libraries Report

3. The Rising Yen and Efforts made by the Agents to compensate for this situation

3.1. The trend of the Yen spanning over 20 years

From 1982 till 1995 the difference in each countries foreign exchange rate vis a vis the Yen can be seen. The Yen has doubled in value throughout the past 10 years in relation to the Pound and the US Dollar. The Mark and the Guilder it has increased by three times its value.

Table 3 Each Country's Exchange Rate from 1982

Update 2000

Consequently there is an enormous difference in the influence of the exchange rate on the subscription value of the journals. Technically this then has made subscribing to foreign journals relatively cheaper.

Publishers have increased the volume of articles published during the past years, yet there has been a decrease in the number of readers. This has led to librarians having to cancel many of the subscription orders. In America this same phenomena labeled by a Mr. McCarthy as the "serial killers".

Table 4 USA serials price projections for 1997
North America
Price Increases
Publishing cost increases
Increased pages
Currency fluctuations
0 to -3.0%
0 to -3.0%
8.0% to 11.0%
7.1% to 10.1%

3.2 The Agents

The table for agent's handling fees is divided up between ordering individual titles from the publisher and subscribing to a whole series of journals.

Table 5 The separate ordering of journal titles and the percentage fee ordering
Individual Title Method
Journal A
Journal B
Percentage Method
Journal A 
Journal B 

Although the agents fee system looks relatively simple, in reality however, it is more complex. The subscription of the very expensive journals means library budgets are not able to meet the extra commission charges placed on them by the agents. This has led to a uniform demand for the local agents to make more reasonable rates. The increased competition between the local Japanese agents and newly instated foreign agents has helped solve some of these economic concerns for librarians. It has also led librarians and publishers alike to the realization that up until now local agents have held a most advantages and profitable position. Although this case has finally been acknowledged the agents still continue to be trusted with many of the librarians subscription orders.

(Even though these prices have now become more reasonable, it must not be forgotten that this result is also in part due to the increase in the Yen's value as opposed to the generous will of the agents.)

A comment made by a Mr. Alster, describes the remarks that agents have acquired "an interesting niche" for themselves. They profess to claim little profit on the foreign journal side with their profits due to the other many roles as publishers and book sales generating the income required. The introduction of foreign agents to the market has on the contrary caused local agents great cause for concern.

With regards to cutting costs and meeting budgets private companies have been brought in to advise national university librarians on ways of cutting costs and meeting budgets. The constantly rising journal and book prices cause much concern from librarians whose budgets do not meet their requirements. Again the Yen increase has thankfully made these increases a little easier.

3.3. The Agent's Function

Agents act on behalf of the librarians in many ways. Up until now it has been impossible for librarians to deal with the foreign publishers due mainly to the language difficulties. Agents have therefore dealt directly with the publishers, placing orders and making payments. They have financed the interim payments difference from when the publisher requires payment to when the librarians actually pay.

A new service has started up called the check-in service due to the initiative taken by foreign publishers. Publishers have begun to send their journals direct to the agents warehouses where the information and data is compiled on a computer database. This saves time and costs on administrative handling. Once any missing numbers are noted and checked each library is sent their package of journals.

This service has allowed the librarians to substantially cut back on the administrative work involved in receiving journal stocks. This newly introduced check-in service means that librarians simply receive the relevant data already stored in electronic format from the agents. This reduces the risk of any missing issues. By leaving the administrative work to the agents the librarians can save many manpower hours.

3.4. The Relationship With Publishers

Up until now there were no formal contracts made between the local agents and the libraries. This meant that the agents did not need to take responsibility for the subscriptions for either the librarians or the publishers. With the introduction of the new system this has all had to change and librarians are finding that they are able to exert more pressure on the agents handling their subscription purchase.

4. Keywords for the End of this Century

It is obvious that the relationship between libraries and agents needs to be reconstructed. Libraries literary needs (information needs) in relation to the services actually available, need to be critically examined. Keywords such as outsourcing, libraries secondary publishing markets and information literacy have surfaced. How can the administrative side of foreign journal subscription be solved?

The outsourcing methods that Mr. Bash describes is perhaps a foreshadow of the future trends and an emphasis that will favor the newly emerging virtual corporation. For foreign journal publications the establishment of the check-in-service serves as one such example. Attention should also be drawn to the extension of outsourcing functions for library administrators due to the various new technological advances. Contract data for electronic mail exchange and missing issues claim for unpublished works are such topics.

Mr. Kubota who writing in the Libraries Secondary Market Publishing Forum, points out that "Libraries are at present modifying their own internal workings and coming to the realization that they must actively participate in the introduction of secondary publishing materials into the library." The truth of the matter is that "whether they have this can make this decision or not, libraries are already reusing the accumulated information and in fact the real decision is whether they will make use of it in a passive or a positive way." A service known as UnCover probably fits in with this argument. This type of service catches on to what kind of ideas / academic information, publishers are thinking. Up until know there have been no checks set on copyright, but know the ILL system is automatically recognizing the author rights with a self collection system. However potential problems arise for publishers as journals may be canceled ad electronically taken instead.

Literacy information is recognizing both the need for outsourcing and secondary market publishing. Computer and networking need to be used as mandatory tools of the library. At the World Web site for United States Libraries journal cancellation projects can be officially announced. At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library, the journal collection was reviewed and as a result on September 29th 1995 the researcher responsible began the serials review project.

In order to make a cut of US$150,000 each research room was asked to cooperate with journal ranking. A list of journals was made, placing them in categories with 10 being ranked the best and 1 the worst. The list that was made can be found on the World Wide Web server under Gopher Server University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library. The rankings were based on the use and value of the journal and a cancellation list thus made. This was then circulated to many researchers. The result was a final list being produced that led to 276 titles being canceled and US$122,229 worth of savings on journals.

The Internet and electronic mail systems provide the tools for the future librarians and their operations. It is by the increase in new technological advances in communication that the national university libraries will I am sure progress and develop. However it is important for us to continue to track the progress of the smaller privately funded libraries as well. How do we see the role of these rather lagging smaller and medium private university libraries? Could it be the enormous stress and strain on those librarians trying to cope with the necessary change that actually preempts this introduction of hi-technology? It is also urgent that we address the issue of reducing stress and accommodating the introduction of information literacy for our librarians of the future. 


1) Hasegawa, Toyohiro, "Foreign Journals and the Pricing Problems Introduction of Literature and 20 years of Trends", Serial Publications Research Report, No.51, December 1993, pp. 6-31

2) Mori, "Gaikoku Tosho no Kai Gai Choku Setsu Koubai" (Direct Dealings with Foreign Libraries -National Libraries Methods), University Libraries Research, No.37, March 1991, pp.44-52
The method of purchase for national library resources are made along the same lines as that of the government purchase. However the criticism of this system is that it extremely bureaucratic and could be made more cost effective. However, on a more positive note it is precisely because of this system that national universities have been able to reduce the prices of materials purchased. This reduction has been possible due to compliance with the bureaucratic system that was already in place. Firstly there is no payment made till product is in hand. Secondly the contracts are made in one of the three governmental methods below.
-a general system contract
-the competitive tender contract
-an individual contract

3) Cummings, A.M. et al., "University libraries and scholarly communication : A study prepared for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation." The Association of Research Libraries, 1992. 11 p.205. <URL>

4) McCarthy, Paul, "Serial Killers: Academic libraries respond to soaring costs." Library journal. Vol. 119, No.11, June 15 1994, pp.41-44.

5) Harrison, Teri, <>, "Faxon's 1997 preliminary subscription price projections". Newsletter on serials pricing issues. No.153, January 27 1995.

6) Alster, Norm, "Autopsy", Forbes, May 8 1995, pp.77-78.

7) Kamura, Seiji, "Changing Methods of Receiving Foreign Serial Publications", National Monthly Issue of Foreign Serial Publications No.373, April 1992, pp.18-19.

8) Isao, Morata, "Gaikoku zasshi kounyu keikaku o meguru shomondai", Byoin Toshokan, Vol. 13, No. 3, !993, pp.77-78.

9) Hasegawa, Toyohiro, "Foreign Journals and the Pricing Problems: New business methods by domestic agents", Toshokan Zasshi, No.51, December 1993, pp. 6-31.

10) Bush, N. Bernard, "Effective Administration of Serials publications in libraries: Report from America", Joho Kanri, Vol. 38, No. 11, February 1996, pp.967-980.

11) Pabbruwe, Herman, Kluwer, Kinokuniya Book Store and ICEDIS. Access News Vol. 3 No.1 January 1995, pp.3-4.

12) Bridge, Frank R., "Connecting library automated systems to the business world". Library journal. March, 1994, pp.38-40.

13) RowCom <> This company provides an agent service for librarians on the Internet. This way the middle man is eliminated. Recently in the U.S. this method was demonstrated and has become a popular way to order and pay for materials.

14) Kubota, Teruzo, "4-2 Gakujutsu Joho", Toshokan Kenkyu Series, No. 30, March 1993, pp.419-459.

15) Kubota, Teruzo, "Kagaku Gijutsu no Seisan - Ryutsu to Toshokan", Kagaku Gijutsu Service, No. 102, 1993, pp.16-24.

16) Oda, "UnCover ( Special Electronic Document Delivery)" Information Culture and Skills, Vol. 44, No. 7, July 1994, pp.362-367.
This is a service which offers 24 hours a day access to the contents page of around 17,000 titles. A minimum charge of $ 20 covers the fax, literacy charges and royalty fees.

17) Hayes, John R., "The Internet's first victim?" Forbes. Vol. 156, No.14, December 18 1995, pp.200-201.
Louisiana State University (USA) canceled 1,569 of Reid Elseiver periodicals costing around US$446,000 and instead switched to using the UnCover service.

18) Review/Cancellation Project. <http:gopher://>

19) The UTC library's 1995 serial cancellations final list.

20) <http:gopher://>