Library Issues
Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College;
Vol. 19, No. 4 March 1999

Serials Wars: The Academy Strikes Back

by Steve Marquartt

The rise in journal subscription prices is not a new story. What is new is that more people and groups within the academy are now not only talking about but are aggressively establishing alternative means to control and communicate scholarly products.

What Has Happened
The rise of subscription prices in excess of the general rate of inflation has been well documented each year, notably in the April 15 issues of Library Journal.1 Fees charged through the national Copyright Clearance Center for the photocopying and sharing of copyrighted articles, beyond the number allowed within fair use guidelines, have also been rising.

The growth of knowledge itself is partly responsible for the problem. Narrow specializations of research and scholarship have emerged, even within the more holistic interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary fields. This specialization has combined with the academy’s own system of tenure and promotion rewards, tied to the quantity of publications, especially in prestigious refereed journals. Beginning with the growth of enrollments in the 1960s, university presses and those of scholarly societies could not expand fast enough to publish the exploding amount of research and publication produced by record numbers of faculty and government sponsored research. This need was filled by commercial publishers who discovered—and have since realized—the very profitable possibilities of journal publishing.

Profits and Mergers. For example, as measured by net profit margin, Plenum Publishing was more profitable in 1997 than 491 companies in the Standard and Poor’s index of 500 leading companies. The net profit margin of Reed Elsevier, one of the largest and most profitable of the commercial scholarly publishers, was higher than 473 of the companies in the S&P 500 for 1997.2 Formed in the merger of Reed and Elsevier in 1993, it has reported 1997 after tax profits of £819 million on sales of £3.4 billion.3 The recent operating margin of the Scientific segment of Reed Elsevier ran at 40.28% (1997), 41.77% (1996), and 39.66% (1995) as a percentage of sales. As a point of comparison, Microsoft’s operating income as a percentage of sales was 45.17% for 1997, 35.50% in 1996, and 34.33% in 1995.4

Reed Elsevier’s corporate strategy, stated in its 1997 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (20-F), calls for increasingly “concentrating on high value-added areas of ‘must-have’ information and significantly reducing its exposure to the consumer markets.”5 Consumer markets is where the competition is. In the scholarly market, authors and readers alike are increasingly forced into narrow and noncompetitive communication channels of specialized prestigious journals.

Reed Elsevier in the 1990s has acquired many well known publishers, including LEXIS-NEXIS, J.B. Lippincott, Information Access Company, Institute for Scientific Information, West Information Publishing Group, Maxwell Reference Group, adding these to major names such as Bowker/Saur, Butterworth’s, and the Congressional Information Service. Reed Elsevier’s grip on “must have” scholarly publishing is indicated by a study undertaken by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which concluded that Reed Elsevier accounts for 3.61% of the titles purchased in the average ARL library, but these titles cost fully 21% of the average ARL library’s total serials expenditure.6

Concentration in the publishing industry has grown to such a degree that in April, 1998, U.S. and European Economic Community regulators raised strong objections to the proposed $9 billion merger of Reed Elsevier with Wolters Kluwer, which would have created the world’s largest trade and professional publisher. The parties cancelled their merger plans. Reed Elsevier is not alone in its acquisitive ways, as shown by the 1998 merger of Random House and Bertelsmann AG. And high profits have also been reported by The Thomson Corporation, another publishing conglomerate that posted 1997 operating profits, in its information and publishing divisions, of $1.2 billion on sales of $8.7 billion.7 A recent independent economic analysis of the publishing industry has verified “that mergers result in significant price increases.”8 High prices (and profits) are unlikely to come down in an industry that is becoming ever more concentrated.

What Is Happening
Librarians’ difficulties in acquiring and gaining access to serial publications are intensifying, as documented in a growing number of articles in the higher education press.9 These problems threaten to assume crisis proportions as the long standing inflation in serials prices is now joined by increasingly expensive pricing policies and the growing restrictions on the “fair use” of electronic publications imposed by publishers of electronic journals. My own library staff have noted a growing tendency of document delivery services (British Lending Library, UnCover, UMI, CISTI, et al.) to report their inability to deliver articles because publishers refuse to grant permission for additional copying, apparently in an attempt to force libraries to subscribe to their journals.

Technology would seem to offer an answer to this problem. Electronic journals offer great potential to become a faster, more fully featured, widely accessible and less expensive medium for scholarly communication. Among the promising developments in this new medium are the baskets of many electronic journal titles offered to libraries at substantial discounts and providing full text access from any PC on campus. Examples of this access to current and recent issues include Project MUSE10 of the Johns Hopkins University Press and “IDEAL”11 from Academic Press. The JSTOR project provides complete back runs of full text journal archives up to five years from the current publication year, for more than 40 journal titles in a variety of disciplines.12

Bundling and Restrictions. Two of the major problems in this early phase of electronic publishing are the bundling of formats and prices, and restrictions on use imposed by publishers’ licenses. In offering licenses for electronic access, many publishers bundle their online offerings at a discount but, as a condition of the discount, require libraries to maintain subscriptions to the paper titles. This “print price plus” requirement to purchase both paper and online versions reduces the library’s power to purchase other journals that are secondary or marginal to a discipline, reducing the sales of secondary journals, which forces their prices to rise, further exacerbating the overall serials access problem.

Restrictions on use are another troublesome aspect of licenses, as opposed to subscriptions to paper journals, the “fair use” use of which is well understood in terms of the national Copyright Act of 1976. The licensing of access to a database is done through contracts governed by contract law. Publishers are now attempting to restrict use of their electronic products by contractual language that limits copying, for example, to only that copying given express written permission of the publisher.

The uncertain and experimental nature of online publishing is one cause of the looming crisis. In fairness to the publishers, we should recognize that the new medium of electronic publishing is still in an experimental phase. At the same time, however, we must take care that the human subjects of this experiment—the scholars at work within our libraries and universities, and learners situated at a distance from the campus are not weakened or disadvantaged by the experiments that are underway as publishers and their parent corporations seek new fields of profit.

Having established very healthy profit margins for print journals, publishers are seeking to expand their product control of electronic journals by aggressively advocating legislation to strengthen the rights of the copyright holder at the expense of the user. In the 1980s, one commercial publisher decried interlibrary loan as “the central disease of our times.” Many of today’s industry representatives, seeking a preemptive prophylaxis that will substantially reduce their exposure to the virus of online resource sharing, are seeking legislation to amend the Copyright Act to “protect databases from misappropriation,” despite a lack of evidence that data is being “misappropriated” on a scale that would justify such legislation.

If Current Trends Continue
“Fair use” remains under threat in every contract negotiation for access to online journals and databases. Growing concentration in the industry will create greater commercial control over not only scholarly publications, but also data and databases. Electronic access will not reduce costs to libraries in the current market system.13 Library budgets will be stressed. Delays and charge-backs will become more frequent as faculty, researchers and students attempt to access the “must have” information.

Striking Back
Given these factors and developments, several options exist to counter the trends toward higher prices and greater restrictions on use. These options range from the cooperative to the competitive, from collaboration across industrial and educational sectors, to those that can be exercised by individuals.

Partnering With Publishers. One collaborative strategy would be to include librarians and their universities as partners in the electronic serials experiment, not merely its human subjects. The recent Statement of Current Perspective and Preferred Practices for the Selection and Purchase of Electronic Information,14 issued by the International Coalition of Library Consortia, is one attempt to extend an olive branch to the publishing industry, in hopes of reshaping the scholarly communications system so that it includes sustainable pricing for libraries, reliable archiving of online serials and databases, and fair use for all who need access to information.

“Paying by the article”—instead of for complete issue and volume contents—is an interesting collaborative experiment currently underway among Elsevier Science publisher, ten universities and two corporate libraries. Even in this experiment, however, the “participating libraries are not permitted to save money by canceling subscriptions to Elsevier journals.”15

Exercise Group Purchasing Power. Groups of libraries can issue specifications for subscriptions and licenses to precisely the journals they want, rather than take titles as bundled by the publishers. The 22 California State University libraries have published an RFP containing a list of 1,250 journals to which it wants full text electronic access.16 The list is a client-and learner-centered core collection of what the libraries and their students and faculty want to buy, rather than what the publisher wants to sell, as in IDEAL or MUSE. Of equal importance is CSU’s use of its collective purchasing power to specify desired standard features such as completeness and currency of content, format, management and usage data, remote user authentication, article level Web catalog access, and archival preservation. These features have varied greatly among publishers and databases, and have invariably been decided a priori by publishers or vendors, with broad customer input and influence coming only after the initial product has been designed and built. The CSU option puts the scholarly horse before the e-journal cart.

“At a minimum, universities
in conjunction with their national and disciplinary
professional associations need to help faculty understand the implications
of signing away their intellectual property rights to
commercial publishers.”

Regain Control Of Scholarship. Universities and associations can move to take control of their own scholarly communication. When viewed from a macro perspective, the current industry picture of merger mania, consolidation and concentration gives little hope for working out affordable models with commercial publishers. The call for returning scholarly communication to scholarly institutions was first issued in the library community in 1989, when it was largely dismissed as interesting but unrealistic.17 A decade later, however, the idea that universities should invest in and experiment with electronic forms of peer-reviewed scholarly communication is rapidly gaining in popularity. Some university publishing agencies may need to be educated in fair use, however. For example, the current “Site License Agreement for Electronic Editions of Journals Published by The University of Chicago Press” withholds rights of multiple copying for classroom use, which under existing law is a clear right of fair use for print products.

At a minimum, universities in conjunction with their national and disciplinary professional associations need to help faculty understand the implications of signing away their intellectual property rights to commercial publishers. Librarians—those most concerned with these issues—can refuse, when entering into contracts with database providers, to sign away their fair use rights, by deleting from contracts any language that requires permission of the publisher to make “fair use” copies of pages or data. In negotiating contracts for online databases, such guidelines as the Principles for Licensing Electronic Resources, developed by six library associations and available at, provides useful guidance.

Reintroducing Competition. The most ambitious experiment within the library community is SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, formed in late 1997 and by November 1998 numbering 113 full members. Led by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and supported by other educational and research organizations, SPARC seeks to create a competitive marketplace for research information, to promote academic values of access to information, and to encourage innovative uses of technology to improve scholarly communication.

SPARC has determined that

PhysChemComm is the first product of SPARC’s partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry.18 At a price of $353 for an institutional online site license, “it competes head-to-head with commercial titles priced at over $8000.” PhysChemComm provides “double refereeing, an esteemed international team of editors, searchable full text, multimedia presentation features, and Web availability.”19

SPARC intends to work on a broad front, ranging from the permanent archiving of research publications to changes in the tenure and promotion process. SPARC has been endorsed by the American Association of Universities, the Association of American University Presses, and the Big 12 Plus Chief Academic Officers at their Spring 1998 meetings,20 as well as university and research library groups in Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. To fulfill its ambitious agenda, SPARC must move beyond endorsements, to convince significant numbers of authors to publish in its new journals, and numerous associations, learned societies, and editorial boards to transfer their prestige and participation to experimental titles.

Retaining Your Rights. Database publishers are routinely inserting contractual language that would prohibit recompiling or photocopying data, or even multiple copying for classroom use—traditional “fair use” rights granted under the current Copyright Act of the U.S. When negotiating contracts for online serials, librarians can delete these provisions before signing and returning a contract, not merely to get the publisher’s attention to this issue, but most importantly to avoid surrendering
by contract what has been granted as a right by federal legislation. In this case, turnabout is definitely “fair use” play.

Faculty and administrators from Caltech, Yale, Kansas and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have recently issued urged faculty to retain their copyrights, rather than signing them away to publishers.21 The implications of copyright possession can be explained by the campus copyright officer or any informed librarian. Such explanations can be the topic of regular campus workshops and information flyers. In discussing these issues, faculty can be asked to consider whether “the process of communication predominates over the issues of product and ownership embodied in the present commercial model,”22 and whether scholarly communication and the dissemination of research differs from commercial publication, and whether the virtues of faculty being widely read may supercede the virtues of publishers’ profit.

Faculty can discourage colleagues from submitting research to highly expensive journals, or serving on their editorial boards. Faculty can protest the formation of new print journals and can send their scholarly work to electronic noncommercial venues. They can also engage the topic at professional meetings, advocating the shift to innovative online scholarly communication.

Academic administrators can use their influence to lobby against proposed legislation that would unduly restrict the fair use of electronic information. More than an inconvenience to students, faculty and librarians, such legislation would result in higher prices for an expanded range of information—costs that the academy would find very difficult and technologically unnecessary to pay.

Faculty, administrators and librarians can support initiatives, such as SPARC, that offer realistic alternatives for disseminating research and scholarship. Alternative models are now economically and technologically feasible.

Leveraging The Technology
The print journal option increasingly appears to be an unrealistic option. The sheer volume of publication, with scientific papers doubling every 10 to 15 years for the past two centuries, and with educational advances in India and China, et al., promising a worldwide population of researchers amounting to ten times what we have today, the current print mode of scholarly communication is clearly unsustainable.23 Industry concentration will make the situation worse.

At the pre-print stage, a centralized electronic model of scholarly communication already exists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the form of Paul Ginsparg’s non-journal database of preprint articles in the field of high energy physics and other fields, accessible by search engine hardware and currently receiving more than 40,000 hits a week.24

Online serials are growing in number. The current 1997 edition of the Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists25 includes over 7,000 listings, including 3,400 serial titles—double the number of 1996—of which 1,645 are categorized as electronic journals, and 1,002 are peer reviewed, up from 47 in 1996. The greatest share (29%) of these titles are scientific in subject, followed by social science titles (28%). The move of these electronic journals to economic viability is indicated by the total of 708 that now charge for access, compared to 168 in 1996.

Bandwidth to be provided by Internet2 and the “Next Generation Internet” will create ever more powerful, attractive and compelling publication formats. The 288 satellites planned for the Broadband Global Satellite System are planned to be in position by 2003, vastly expanding the world’s telecommunications capacity. Development of “digital object identifiers,” by which individual articles and data sets can be tracked and billed, may allow a “pay per view” approach to disaggregated online scholarly publication, article by article. Although this item-specific DOI technology may threaten the economies of scale from which serials and database publishers benefit today, it poses interesting possibilities for more precise and affordable online scholarly publication.

Change The Culture. The most difficult option is the one upon which most of the above options depend for success—to change the traditional faculty cultural value of publishing in prestigious journals, in pursuit of promotion and tenure. Promotion and tenure committees also need to consider disentangling the notions of quality and quantity in scholarly work. The AAU is looking into this issue, having recently established a task force on decoupling certification from publication.26

Faculty must consider their long term interests in the new electronic publications. New technology alone will not suffice to break today’s unsustainable cost cycle. Market forces in the publishing industry, if left undisturbed, will inflict unacceptable pain upon universities, their libraries, and those who depend upon them. Therefore universities, scholarly associations and grant funding bodies must transfer the prestige of well known traditional journals to the new peer reviewed electronic publications, in order to encourage faculty to communicate knowledge in this more prompt, accessible, and above all affordable medium.

The serials publication crisis will not solve itself under the influences of current noncompetitive market forces and tomorrow’s innovative technology. The academy should not be lulled into a belief that advanced technology alone will provide weapons that will in themselves prove sufficient for victory in the serials wars. We in the academy should be actively at work pursuing options that will preserve the fair use legal structure, exploit the promising but culture-neutral technology, and—mostly painfully—restructure our own systems of recognition and rewards, in order to create an affordable future for learning, scholarship and research. The active involvement of university leadership from within faculty senates and presidential suites alike, will be required if these ambitious options are to be pursued.

1Lee Ketcham-Van Orsdel and Kathleen Bord, “E-Journals Come of Age: 38th Annual Periodical Price Survey, 1998,” Library Journal, 123:7 (April 15, 1998), p. 40-45.
2Brendan J. Wyly, “Competition in Scholarly Publishing? What Publisher Profits Reveal,” ARL: A Bimonthly Newsletter of Research Library Issues and Actions, No. 200 (October 1998), at The author highly recommends this study.
3 See the Reed Elsevier World Wide Web home page at
4 Wyly, op. cit.
5 Ibid.
6Figures obtained from Mary Case of the Association of Research Libraries
7The Thomson Corporation “Consolidated Statement of Earnings and Retained Earnings” is available at
8Mark J. McCabe, “The Impact of Publisher Mergers on Journal Prices,” ARL: A Bimonthly Newsletter of Research Library Issues and Actions, No. 200 (October 1998), at
9“To Publish and Perish,” Policy Perspectives, 7:4 (March 1998) and also available at; Lisa Guerney, “Library Groups, Decrying ‘Excessive Pricing,’ Demand New Policies on Electronic Journals,” Chronicle of Higher Education, (April 10, 1998), p. A34-35; see also “Scholarly Communication and the Need for Collective Action: A Statement by the Chief Academic Officers of the Big 12,” on the Big 12 Plus Library Consortium web page, and reported in “Online,” Chronicle of Higher Education, XLIV:38 (May 29, 1998), p. A25.
10The MUSE home page is available at
11The IDEAL home page is available at
12The JSTOR home page is available at
13William Miller, “Electronic Access to Information Will Not Reduce the Cost of Library Materials, Library Issues, 13:6 (July 1995).
14The ICOLC Statement is available at
15Vincent Kiernan, “Paying by the Article: Libraries Test a New Model for Scholarly Journals,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 1998, p. A21.
16The CSU Request For Proposal for the Journal Access Core Collection is available at
17Richard M. Dougherty, “Turning the Serials Crisis to Our Advantage: An Opportunity for Leadership,” in Library Administration & Management, 3:2 (Spring 1989), p. 59-63.
18PhysChemComm is available at
19“ARL Announces.... Europeans Join Effort to Expand Competition in Journal Publishing,” ARL-Announce distribution list e-mail posting of October 23, 1998.
20The Big 12 Plus Library Consortium consists of 23 university and research libraries of the Midwest, Plains and Rocky Mountain regions, centered around the Big 12 Athletic Conference. See
21Lisa Guernsey, “A Provost Challenges His Faculty to Retain Copyright on Articles,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 1998, p. A29-30. Steven Bachrach, et al., “Who Should Own Scientific Papers?” Science, 281 (4 September 1998), p. 1459-1460; also available at
22Morton, Bruce, “Is the Journal as We Know It an Article of Faith? An Open Letter to the Faculty,” The Public-Access Computer Systems Review,
8:2 (1997). Available at
23Odlyzko, Andrew M., “Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The Impending Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journal,” in Robin P. Peek and Gregory B. Newby, eds., Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), p. 91-101.
24The Los Alamos National Laboratory online pre-print archive is
available at
25Dru W. Mogge (ed.), Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and
Academic Discussion Lists,
7th edition (Washington, DC: Association of
Research Libraries, 1997) also available at
26“To Publish and Perish,” p. 8-9.

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