Institutional leaders need to work with academic librarians at a crucial moment
For several years now, academic librarians have been trying to warn us that the scholarly publishing infrastructure is on the verge of collapse. We have been slow to respond. Many of us simply arent listening. Why should we? The system is still there. We keep submitting and they keep publishing. Many of us sit on the editorial boards of the journals our libraries can no longer afford to purchase. Still others support journal subscription cost increases by learned societies because they pay for all sorts of programs unique to our particular discipline.
But pressures are mounting. Many scholars have already turned their backs on traditional publishing. With gathering speed and in growing numbers, they are creating alternatives that offer wider access to important research in less time. As the old system loses ground and newer ones gain support, will we be able to adapt? If not, we risk losing much of what makes the academic enterprise workour ability to communicate effectively with one another.
No other group in the academy has tracked these issues more closely than our librarians and no other group has been so directly affected. Enormous forces are bearing down on them: the ever-accelerating rate and volume of research, the growth of the Web and its effect on the flow of information, the demands of creating the most advanced digital resources while still preserving and enlarging traditional collections.
Their message is simple: were approaching a time when scholarly publishing as we know it will cease to exist. Our librarians need us to work with them as we jointly grapple with the complex issues involved. They need us to become aware, as they have, of the inescapable reality of change. And they wisely advise us to become active participants in that change, lest it be dictated by forces external to the academy.
The intellectual resources of scholars are as much a part of our collections as journals and books. By the rules of the marketplace, this means we have tremendous power. If higher education, as a collective endeavor, is serious about influencing change, then we have to be prepared to leverage those resources and exercise that power.
Librarians, though, can only do so much. Presidents, provosts and other institutional leaders need to take ownership and responsibility. They need to think less about library acquisitions budgets as a perennial problem and more about universities as producers of intellectual capital. The intellectual resources of scholars are as much a part of our collections as journals and books. By the rules of the marketplace, this means we have tremendous power. If higher education, as a collective endeavor, is serious about influencing change, then we have to be prepared to leverage those resources and exercise that power.
Before the Web became a reliable and instantaneous mode of communication across a broad array of media, academic publishing took place almost exclusively in print journals. Whether commercially published or produced by nonprofit learned societies, both derive income from subscription sales. Under this model, the academy is the market and publishers have become skilled at managing that market. We as scholars give journals the output of our work free of charge. They then sell it back to us through our libraries.
Why would such educated people participate in such an illogical enterprise? Why would we buy a product that we ourselves have produced? The partial answer is that publishers add value by managing the peer review process. They also edit, incorporate images, typeset, print and distribute the journals they produce. But is this the model that serves us best? Is it the model that best serves our colleagues and, by extension, society at large?
Once upon a time, perhaps. But the publishing industry overall and the sector involved in scholarly journals more specifically, have undergone profound economic and structural change in recent years. Multiple specialty publishers have been bought by larger companies, and as those companies grow in size and scope, so they expand in their power to dictate the terms of the market. Large corporations need to add value to their bottom lines as well as to the research we give them. They have to deliver an acceptable profit to their shareholders, and the more numerous the shareholders, the greater the demand for profit. This is particularly true in journals representing science, technology and medicine (STM).
Journals published by learned societies and other scholarly associations must also generate sufficient funds to perpetuate themselves, appoint editorial boards, publish and distribute their materials. Some even contract out to commercial firms certain technical and production tasks, adding expense to the society which is recovered by raising subscription costs. Regardless of the model, commercial or nonprofit, in print or online, the cost of journals published within these traditional structures far exceeds our libraries ability to purchase them.
A single journal subscription could cost a library more than $20,000 per year. STM journal subscription costs increased 155 percent over the 10-year period from 1990 to 2000, according to a recent study by the Wellcome Trust. As scholarship builds upon scholarship, it creates new fields and new areas of research, increasing the demand for journals and further stretching library budgets. In the end, our librarians are forced into triage mode, deleting key journals from their collections in order to preserve their ability to purchase others.
The empty space on the shelf that a journal once occupied represents a diminution, in every sense, of our ability to exchange information, teach and gain new insights from colleagues around the world. We may want to believe that market forces exist in a world apart from the imperatives of our scholarly pursuits. But they do not. Those forces will ultimately limit our ability to advance crucial research and, in the end, deprive the larger society of the benefits that flow from our work.
The Emerging Environment: A New Model
Nowhere is the need for speed and ease of access to published research greater than in the science, technology and medicine sectors. The mapping of the human genome and other recent advances have sped the pace and increased the volume of research to a remarkable degree. Scientists, with the assistance of librarians skilled in utilizing the Web, are beginning to create their own templates for publishing. In the process, they are re-engineering the marketplace in which scholarly publication takes place.
Harold E. Varmus, President and Chief Executive of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is one of the most visible proponents of the new model. The so-called open access movement seeks to overturn the way scientific scholarship is reviewed, published, distributed and funded by using Web technologies to speed the pace of publication and provide universal, immediate access to important research.
In 2000, Varmus and his colleagues established the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Its first journal, PLoS Biology, puts out approximately 10 papers per month and new journals are in the works, including PLoS Medicine. Funding for the initiative is substantial, and noted editors from traditional journals have signed on to its staff.
BioMed Central, home to more than 100 journal titles, features a moving headline on its Website, urging authors to submit now for full peer review and rapid publication. In open revolt against the traditional system of high-cost, restricted- access scholarly publishing, the open access model is gaining momentum as librarians, scholars, funding organizations and even government officials realize that the traditional system is out of joint with the times.
Under the emerging system, authors pay a fixed fee to the online journal. Typically around $1,500, the fee covers peer review, electronic publication, archiving, and distribution. In addition to authors fees, open access journals are supported by foundation grants and advertising revenue.
Last year, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute told grantees that it would cover the cost of article processing in the open access format. The same policies have been announced by the National Institutes of Health. In the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Trust now covers the cost to researchers who publish their work in recognized STM Web journals.
At a news conference in March at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the leading publishers of journals in the nonprofit sector announced their commitment to providing free access and broad dissemination of research. The Washington D.C. Principles for Free Access to Science, were adopted by groups ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Physiological Society, and the American College of Physicians, to the American Society of Animal Science, the Radiological Society of North America, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
What Comes Next?
If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. A wholesale abandonment of traditional print in favor of open access scholarly journals could pose problems that we are not yet prepared to solve. If the goal is to relieve pressure on library acquisitions budgets, while providing fast access to research results either free of charge or at minimal cost, we should pursue it enthusiastically. Communities of scholars are already gathering to share their work online, speed the pace of research communication, and devise creative ways to bring these resources into the classroom.
The prospect is exciting and liberating but there are profound questions yet to be answered. How do we protect intellectual property once its online? How will the scholarly community organize a coherent and reliable method of archiving electronic journal articles? On what publishing system will we base our evaluations of candidates or our tenure decisions?
For students, who migrated to the Web years ago and now use it as a basic research tool, how do we teach them to discern sources that are credible from those that are not?
Questions about the long-term economic viability of open access journals have been raised. Philanthropic interest may not stand the test of time and the hoped for economies of scale that organizations such as PLoS anticipate may not provide sufficient income to fund the editorial and technical infrastructures. If commercial publishers change their business models to adapt to the new environment, open access journals may lose their appeal and thus their competitive momentum.
Probing deeper into the ways we create our institutional cultures, it is still the case that print journals are the coin of the realm. To what degree will we accept scholars whose publishing records are numbered in different currencies? Do citations in online journals count as much as those from traditional sources? Our educational hierarchies, though we may not want to admit it, are built on the hierarchies of the publishing world as it now exists. Will we reward scholars who push the boundaries of those hierarchies, or will we penalize them?
In the end, the success or failure of open access journals may depend less on the vagaries of the market than on our willingness to transform our cherished but perhaps too closely guarded academic cultures. According to former Dartmouth Librarian Richard Lucier, Deans and faculty, through their promotion and tenure processes, must be willing to suspend the traditional approach, particularly for young scholars who are experimenting with new modes of publishing. In fact, they should be aggressive in encouraging and rewarding such innovation.
Librarians have transformed themselves in order to help us realize the promise of new and emerging technologies. They have done so in the face of tremendous economic challenge and technological change. Now its our turn. Scholars and scientists need to take ownership of these issues across institutions and disciplines. Only then will a solution be forthcoming. Academic librarians have set us an admirable example, one we should be prepared to follow.