University librarians fear higher prices for periodicals could follow the planned merger of their biggest subscription agencies.
The joint venture between Blackwell Information Services and Swets Subscription Service will result in a company that will have a $1 billion (Pounds 641 million) lions' share of the market for universities' journal subscriptions.
The two companies are among several that handle journal orders from university libraries and deal with publishers on their behalf.
The ability to secure orders from a large number of universities means the agencies can push for publisher discounts, some of which are passed on. The service also helps save universities time and effort in placing and chasing up orders themselves.
But the scale of the Swets/Blackwell venture is worrying the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries.
Fred Friend, chair of Sconul's advisory committee on scholarly communication, said: "These two agents have been competing for library journal subscriptions for many years and between them attract a very high proportion of university business, so the concern must be whether a reduction in competition will lead to higher prices for their services.
"Both of them have a good reputation for efficiency and we hope they will use their combined strength to secure lower prices," he added.
The two firms say the merger will allow them to bring an extended range of services to libraries worldwide and "significant benefits" to customers.
Swets says the organisation will be the dominant United Kingdom player in the market, but declines to give details of the market share of the combined group, citing commercial confidentiality.
Bart de Gan, Swets spokesman, said the merger reflects growing market pressures from independent consortia of universities and electronic platforms like the internet and CD-Roms.
"We have to invest in new strategies and research and development to explore the opportunities presented by the electronic medium. Through this merger we will have the funds to do that. We do not see the venture as leading to increasing subscription fees for university libraries."
Anthony Thompson, group chief of Blackwell Ltd, owner of Blackwell Information Services, said: "It must be recognised that this business operates on wafer-thin margins and that the cost of doing business via electronic as well as paper journals has grown rapidly in the past two to three years. Having a sustainable business size and scale is becoming increasingly important."