Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  Larry Hardesty, University of Nebraska at Kearney; Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steven Bell, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Hoeth, Florida Gulf Coast University
Vol. 25, No. 3 January 2005

The System of Scholarly Communication:
Shaping the Future

by Ray English

Scholarly communication—the system through which research and other scholarly writings are created, evaluated for quality, disseminated, and preserved for future use—is in crisis.

The system, which is characterized by escalating journal prices, increasing corporate control, and peril for university presses, is simply unsustainable. Academic and research libraries‘ budgets cannot keep up with rising costs and university presses cannot be subsidized by their parent institutions at past levels, especially given the extreme budget pressures that have affected both public and private higher education.

It is especially troubling that the academy and the nonprofit sector have lost control over the research and scholarship that they produce. Scholars create research in order to facilitate the process of inquiry and the development of knowledge. In the case of journal literature they willingly give over that research for publication, without any expectation of monetary reward. The academy then in many instances pays exorbitant rates for that same research to be distributed back to it, often at levels that are substantially above the value added from the peer review and distribution process.


Components of the Crisis

Serials Costs. The library “serials crisis” has been with us for decades, as journal prices have increased at rates several times the rate of general inflation in the economy. A significant number of journals now cost more than $5,000 annually, with the most expensive exceeding $20,000.

The problem of cost increase has been worse in scientific, technical, and medical (STM) fields, but now increasing rates of journal inflation are occurring in humanities as well and especially in the social sciences fields.

Libraries have responded to escalating prices in a variety of ways, including subscription cuts, greater reliance on interlibrary loan and document delivery, and reductions in monograph purchases.

While electronic journal agreements have allowed some libraries to increase journal access, the net effect for most libraries has been a significant loss in access to scholarship. This has occurred during periods when the number of journals published has continued to grow as new fields of inquiry have emerged.

Monographs Crisis. There is an equally serious scholarly monographs crisis, especially in university press publishing. Stories documenting the economic troubles of university presses are now commonplace.

While there are various factors that have affected the presses, the decline in their library market has been a major factor. As library monographic purchases have declined (largely due to serials cost increases), sales of specialized monographs have been reduced sharply. University presses have responded by attempting to publish titles of more general interest, while limiting — or even discontinuing — publication of specialized monographs, particularly in humanities fields. Warned of this crisis, members of the Modern Language Association were encouraged to work for revised tenure criteria for young faculty who, in many instances, would no longer be able to find publishing outlets for their first monograph, which has often been considered a prerequisite for tenure.

Corporate Control. Increasing corporate control of scholarly publishing occurred steadily throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Many scholarly societies found it advantageous, for a variety of reasons, to transfer their journals to the commercial sector. As corporations have gained more control, there has also been steady consolidation in the journal publishing industry as a whole, again particularly in STM fields. Profits accrued by corporations that have pursued the most aggressive pricing practices have fueled merger upon merger. At present, a small number of international conglomerates now account for a very large percentage of all scholarly journal publishing.

Numerous studies have shown that subscription prices for commercial journals are substantially higher than journals published in the nonprofit sector, as measured in a variety of ways, e.g. cost per page, cost per citation.

A number of economic studies, principally by Mark McCabe, have documented a clear link between publisher merger and price increases. Since STM publishers know that they face an inelastic market, one in which increases in price do not result in corresponding decreases in demand, they realize that larger journal portfolios, created through the merging process, will enable them to increase profits by raising prices, even though some subscriptions will be lost through the cancellation process.

Licensing Issues. The development of electronic journals, which create the potential for much broader distribution of scholarly content coupled with reduced publishing and distribution costs, offers many promising possibilities. But electronic journals have also given commercial publishers opportunities for new revenue streams and increasing market control.

Since electronic journals are usually licensed by libraries, their use is governed by contract law, rather than copyright law. The market power of publishers has enabled them, in many instances, to impose licensing terms that place undesirable limits on the use of journal content, eliminating forms of access that would have been acceptable under principals of fair use in the print environment.

Individual libraries have only limited bargaining power with large commercial entities when they attempt to negotiate rights for such services as interlibrary loan or desired levels of access for all categories of library users. The so-called “big deal” licenses, in which an individual library or group of libraries acquires access to the electronic version of all or most of a publisher‘s journals, often place significant restrictions on libraries’ abilities to manage the content that they receive and to exert control over their serials budgets. Such agreements, for example, often preclude a library from realizing cost savings by canceling print subscriptions.

Policy Threats. Media interests, including the publishing industry, exert enormous influence at the federal policy level and they have been effective in bringing about change in federal copyright law that further limits access to scholarship. The copyright term has been substantially extended, significantly reducing the availability of public domain information, and fair use of information in digital form is under continuing threat


Working for Change

Active efforts to foster systemic change began in the late 1990s, with the articulation of general principles to guide the change process and the development of organizations devoted to promoting change. In 1997 the Association of Research Libraries initiated SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of academic and research libraries that has worked actively on the development of alternative publishing models, change advocacy, and educational programs to enhance awareness of scholarly communications issues. Since that time, several other library organizations have become engaged in efforts to reform the system of scholarly communications.

The following have emerged as significant strategies for addressing scholarly communication issues:

Competitive Journals. An early strategy developed by SPARC was to establish partnerships to create new journals to compete with specific, high-priced commercial titles. A well-known example is Organic Letters, which is published by the American Chemical Society. This title, and others like it, have demonstrated that it is feasible to publish high quality journals at a fraction of the cost of commercial titles.

Editorial Board Control. SPARC has also encouraged editorial boards to exert more control over the business practices of their journals. In some instances boards have been successful in leading publishers to reduce subscription prices or limit price increases. In many more instances, entire editorial boards have decided to “Declare Independence” and move their journal to independent or nonprofit contexts.

Collective Buying. Library consortia in some instances have been able to exert collective buying power in order to reach licensing agreements with major publishers that have significantly reduced the rate of cost increase while also expanding journal access. The most notable American example of this is OhioLINK, which negotiates electronic licenses for virtually all academic libraries in the state of Ohio and loads journal content on its Electronic Journal Center, which is controlled by the consortium.

Anti-Merger Activity. Library organizations have become more active in challenging publisher mergers. In 2002 the major library associations in the United States formed the Information Access Alliance in order to bring more national attention to the problem of mergers and consolidation in the journal publishing industry and also to challenge — unsuccessfully as it turned out — the merger of Kluwer and Bertelsmann-Springer under a private British equity firm.

Open Access. The most promising strategy for bringing about fundamental reform in the system of scholarly communication is open access, which encompasses both open access journal publishing and author self-archiving in open access repositories.

Open access journals can be defined as those whose content is made freely and openly available on the internet and whose costs are covered prior to the publishing process, rather than through subsequent subscriptions or fees that control access. The best known open access journals are those published by the Public Library of Science, which was founded by a prominent group of scientists who became disillusioned with the commercial journal publishing system, and BioMed Central, a commercial publisher headquartered in London that now offers over 100 open access titles in biomedical fields.

Author self-archiving relies upon an author’s retention of copyright or the right to distribute a pre- or post-print of an article openly on the internet. Disciplinary repositories provide open access to the content of a particular discipline. The first such repository was an open access pre-print server for articles in high-energy physics that was founded by Paul Ginsbarg at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Disciplinary repositories have now been established in a wide variety of fields and are gaining increasing acceptance. Institutional repositories are similar to disciplinary repositories, except that they attempt to capture and make openly accessible the research output of a specific institution. Prominent early examples in the United States are DSpace at MIT and the eScholarship Repository for the University of California system.

Education and Advocacy. Since faculty and other researchers have significant power in the system of scholarly communication, many efforts have been undertaken to make them aware of dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system and encourage them to promote change in their capacities as authors or editorial board members. The Create Change initiative, sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and SPARC is a prominent example. The initiative, which features brochures and a detailed website on scholarly communications issues, is designed to support campus communications efforts related to scholarly communication.

Taking Action

As faculty and administrators there are steps you can take to help create a system of scholarly communication that is more responsive to the needs of scholars and more under the control of the academy.

As Faculty:

• If you are an editor or an editorial board member of a subscription journal, examine the journal’s business practices and, in the case of expensive titles, encourage reasonable pricing practices. If warranted, consider moving your journal to a non-commercial publisher or creating an alternative or open access journal.

• Consider declining to review for unreasonably expensive journals. Notify the journal of the reason for your refusal and consider communicating your decision on disciplinary listservs.

• Submit papers to quality journals that have reasonable pricing practices. Where possible publish in open access journals or journals supported by SPARC.

• Modify any contract you sign with a publisher to ensure that you retain the rights to use your work as you see fit, including posting it to a disciplinary or institutional repository.

• Deposit preprints and/or post-prints of your articles in disciplinary or institutional repositories.

As Administrators:

• Encourage discussion of scholarly communications issues and proposals at your college or university and in your professional associations.

• Encourage acceptance of electronic and alternative publications in tenure and promotion decisions.

• Support the library’s cancellation of expensive, low-use titles or its decision to reject aggregated electronic journal license agreements.

• Encourage your institution or its local or regional consortium to set up an institutional repository.

For more information:

• See the Create Change brochure published by the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, SPARC, and SPARC Europe.


Signs of Hope

There are many encouraging signs that indicate that systemic change is indeed underway.

Faculty at a number of institutions have become quite active on scholarly communications issues. Several faculty governance organizations have supported research libraries in declining or markedly altering “big deal” agreements with major publishers. Their public statements in support of their libraries have underscored the unsustainability of the present system and the importance of creating fundamental change. This level of faculty engagement was totally absent just a few years ago.

The growth and development of the open access movement has been especially encouraging. In addition to the establishment of prominent open access journals, such as those published by the Public Library of Science, the sheer number of open access journals is growing quite rapidly. As of this writing, the Directory of Open Access Journals, which lists peer-reviewed journals that are openly accessible on the internet, contains 1,380 titles, roughly five percent of the total number of scholarly journals.

In both this country and abroad major funding agencies such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust in Britain, and the Max Planck Society in Germany have announced public support for open access, including funding for authors’ fees for those who publish in open access journals.

Open access and scientific publishing in general are reaching the level of national policy debate in several countries. In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently held an inquiry into scientific publishing. The report of the inquiry recommended that all universities in the UK establish institutional repositories and encouraged experimentation with open access publishing.

While the government’s response to the report was less than encouraging, it remains likely that the UK will be the first country to broadly endorse and implement open access principles through institutional repositories and author self-archiving.

An especially exciting development in the United States has been the recent movement by the National Institutes of Health to provide open-access — after a six-month embargo period — to the results of NIH-funded research. This change was recommended by the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee and it has recently been supported by the entire Congress in a report accompanying the appropriations bill that funds NIH.

Publishers are also changing in response to the success of the open access movement, either by granting authors the right to archive their work in repositories or by making the content of their own journals openly accessible after an initial embargo period. Elsevier recently announced that it would allow its authors to make their articles openly accessible either on personal websites or in institutional repositories. Several prominent publishers, such as Oxford University Press, are experimenting with journals that are either totally or partially open access.


Your Help Is Needed

Despite all such encouraging developments, the present dysfunctional system of scholarly communication remains deeply entrenched. Fundamental change will occur only through sustained action by the higher education community both in this country and abroad. It is critical that higher education administrators and faculty commit to assisting this process. —Ray English is Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Ray.English@oberlin.edu


Further Readings

General Resources

Create Change


Principles for Emerging Systems of Scholarly Publishing (Tempe Principles)

ACRL Principles and Strategies for the Reform of Scholarly Communication


Editorial Board Control

Declaring Independence

For a list of journal declarations of independence see the “Lists” section of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter site


Faculty Actions

For a list of faculty / university actions against high journal prices, see the “Lists” section of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter site


Journal Prices

Ted Bergstrom‘s Journal Pricing Page

Open Access

Budapest Open Access Initiative

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)

Removing the Barriers to Research: An Introduction to Open Access for Librarians,” by Peter Suber. College & Research Libraries News, 64 (February 2003) pp. 92-94, 113.



The Librarians’ Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the ‘Big Deal’,” by Kenneth Frazier, D-Lib Magazine, March 2001


Mergers, Industry Consolidation, Antitrust

Information Access Alliance

"Journal Pricing and Mergers: A Portfolio Approach," by Mark McCabe. American Economic Review, 92,1 (March 2002) pp. 259-69. Available as PDF from McCabe website.


Monograph Publishing

"We’re Not Dead Yet: University Presses Can Survive if University Libraries Work with Them to Create a Sustainable Future for Scholarly Communication." By Barbara Fister and Niko Pfund. Library Journal,
November 15, 2004, pp. 26-29.

The Specialized Scholarly Monograph in Crisis, Or How Can I Get Tenure If You Won’t Publish My Book? Conference proceeding available at: http://www.arl.org/scomm/epub/program.html

A Special Letter from Stephen Greenblatt (President, Modern Language Association)



Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 25, no.3  © 2005 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: apdougherty@CompuServe.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified: January 2005


Produced by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc.