Vol. 7, No. 10: June 22, 2001
Journal Costs and Electronic Resources: Perspectives on the Future
by Hal Schlais,
Coordinator for Learning Technology Development,
University of Wisconsin System Administration
I've been perplexed for some time, and I’m sure many of you have been as well. The conundrum goes something like this: A faculty member spends years of her life learning, researching, thinking, organizing, teaching, and writing. Her university invests substantially during this process. She publishes the fruits of her labor in a highly respected journal. And finally her library buys a subscription to the journal, sometimes costing in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. Why should universities pay so much to gain access to knowledge that they helped create? And what happens when libraries can't keep up with rapidly accelerating costs? When a preprint of an article by Ted Bergstrom of The University of California-Santa Barbara entitled "Free Labor for Costly Journals?" came to my attention, my interest was piqued even further. I also re-considered some of the issues raised in last September's TTT, which addressed electronic resources and academic libraries.
It came as no surprise that, for some time, university libraries across the country have been struggling with the rapidly increasing costs of purchasing professional journals, manuscripts, course packs, and similar materials. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries report that many journal costs have increased ten to twenty percent per year over the past decade, causing subscription prices to more than double. As a result, over 6,000 journal subscriptions have been cancelled. (For more information, see http://www.wisc.edu/wendt/journals/costben/mcostben.html.)
To my surprise, one of the earliest pioneers in analyzing journal prices in terms of cost vs. effectiveness was a physics professor. In 1986, Professor Henry Barschall of UW-Madison created a huge furor in the publishing industry (Soete and Salaba, 1999; also see http://www.library.wisc.edu/projects/glsdo/cost.html). He developed a methodology for quantifying the effectiveness of scientific journals by combining such previously identified factors as cost per 1,000 characters and impact. Among his conclusions (for which he was legally harassed for half a decade): the most effective publishers were the non-profit scientific societies and the least effective were commercial publishers. Moreover, U.S. publishers were significantly more cost effective than were European publishers.
Barschall's methodology proved to be groundbreaking. A 1998 follow-up study substantially confirmed Barschall's results. Ironically, Professor Barschall died in early 1997, just a few months prior to the settling of litigation raised against him by publishers.
Other research libraries have also found similar results in other areas. In 1998, a faculty task force at Cornell published its "Journal Price Study: Core Agricultural and Biological Journals." One of its conclusions: "The data demonstrate that the heavy commercial charges for library subscriptions come largely from European publishers with the greatest influence coming from those in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom... ". The report goes on to say that the data make it unmistakably clear that libraries are paying high institutional prices for these journals that are out of proportion to their value as measured by standard impact factors (p. 24).
Bergstrom (p. 12) reports that, for economics journals, about 80% of libraries' costs are for subscriptions that generate only about 33% of journal usage in that discipline. And guess what? He reports that the 80% of our subscription fees are paid to commercial journals. Looked at conversely, non-profit journals (e.g., from professional societies) account for about 20% of the subscription costs and account for about two-thirds of the use. Not only that, when looked at in terms of a cost effectiveness ratio (that is, on a per-usage basis), the mostly costly journals were as much as 16 times more expensive than their more modestly-priced counterparts.
Thus, we have a fairly well-defined group of relatively high-cost, low-impact publishers. So why we don't we just boycott them? A major concern is that faculty and staff in the "publish or perish" mode have been largely oblivious to the costs of publications. Or, even if they have been aware, they have ignored the steeply rising costs of publications for a variety of survival reasons. Meanwhile, the commercial marketplace has capitalized upon the publication explosion of the past few decades. The trip wire of costs plus relatively recent e-publishing alternatives both call for and allow some new options. The Cornell Task Force (p. 25) outlines the following to faculty and staff.
They also lay out several options for libraries and administration. The last two of these are listed below:
At some level these are all interrelated, in particular the last two; we cannot successfully address the former without accommodating the latter. The Association of Research Libraries has mounted a campaign you may be interested in investigating, which is detailed on their website.
A number of strategies and new initiatives have been developed. BioOne is just one example of an alternative publishing effort. It has been established as a non-profit corporation through the collaboration of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the University of Kansas, the Big 12 Plus Library Coalition, and Allen Press. They are asking libraries rather than venture capitalists for support. (See http://www.arl.org/sparc/core/index.asp?page=g6.)
A slightly different alternative is for faculty and staff to publish electronic learning resources in a repository such as MERLOT, or Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching. MERLOT was originally a product of the California State System (as you might guess from the name!) and has expanded to become a partnership of 23 universities and university systems, including the UW System. The partners support the peer-review effort, the editorial board, and the publishing of the content. MERLOT is a free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students in higher education.
If you wish, you can even download your own guide with a click or two from the ARL site and create your own scholarly journal. While ostensibly directed at scientific publishing, "Declaring Independence: Creating Community-Controlled Science Journals" (from TRLN, the Triangle Research Libraries Network) is a useful set of guidelines for a variety of publishing venues.
Each of the previous examples involves a review process similar to traditional ones. A third option involves a whole new way of publishing, exemplified by MIT's OpenCourseWare Initiative, announced on April 4, 2001. MIT intends to make nearly all its courseware materials available free on the web over the next ten years. Quoting from the press release:
Professor Steven Lerman, chair of the MIT faculty, said that the project stemmed both from enthusiasm for the opportunities that the Internet affords for wide-spread sharing of educational ideas, and from concern over the growing "privatization of knowledge." He noted that many universities, including MIT, see the Internet as a means of delivering revenue-generating distance education.
But, he said, "We also need to take advantage of the tremendous power of the Internet to build on the tradition at MIT and in American higher education of open dissemination of educational materials and innovations in teaching."
Essentially, the world is to be their referee. And another impressive point is made here: in some ways the issue of "revenue generation" is completely taken off the table. At least in this one area, the focus has shifted to the open dissemination and sharing of information. How refreshing!
As I reflect on the whole process, it occurs to me that it has taken us literally hundreds of years to evolve the present, occasionally parasitic system of scholarly publishing. Now it seems that we're aware of the predicament we're in and know full well that, by a slight rethinking, we can address the issues surrounding both cost of publication and the rewards system. Wouldn't it be perplexing if we as a scholarly community failed to act? One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in moving to the new publishing paradigm is that of ownership and the subsequent issues surrounding copyright and profit. How valuable is the product we are creating? I would argue that it is often most valuable as a shared resource held up to the scrutiny of the world. What tougher referee can we find? To quote MIT President Charles M. Vest on the OpenCourseWare initiative:
"MIT OpenCourseWare is a bold move that will change the way the Web is used in higher education. With the content posted for all to use, it will provide an extraordinary resource, free of charge, which others can adapt to their own needs. We see it as source material that will support education worldwide, including innovations in the process of teaching and learning itself."
Bergstrom, Theodore C. "Free Labor for Costly Journals?," unpublished article slated to appear in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Create Change website at http://www.createchange.org/home.html. Create Change is co-sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, with support from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.
Frazier, Ken. PowerPoint presentations on SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. http://www.library.wisc.edu/projects/glsdo/misc.html
Soete, George, and Salaba, Athena. "Measuring Journal Cost-Effectiveness: Ten Years After Barschall," 1999. http://www.library.wisc.edu/projects/glsdo/cost.html
University of Wisconsin, University Library Committee, Annual Report. http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/News/ULC/reports/98_99.pdf