UC Berkeley Library > Library Collections > Scholarly Communication: Crisis and Revolution

Scholarly Communication: Crisis and Revolution

Scholarly communication is in a time of great upheaval, in part due to profit-seeking behaviors of publishers, and in part due the enormous opportunities inherent in the electronic storage and quick internet retrieval of information.

Scholars create the intellectual content which they often give to publishers for free. Publishers, in turn, sell this same content back to the academic community, often at exorbitant prices. At the same time that prices rise, Library budgets at best are remaining flat. This model for scholarly communication is not sustainable.

There are a variety of contributing factors to the conundrum we face:

We face a deeper and longer-lasting revolution in how scholars will want to receive, review, and distribute contributions to their fields of study.

The Crisis

The current model for scholarly communication most often involves scholars doing the research, writing a publishable account, and placing the piece with a reputable publisher (be it a society, non-profit, or commercial publisher). The publisher creates a peer-reviewed and indexed product (be it print, electronic or some combination thereof), which the publisher then sells back to Libraries in the form of journals, monographs, audio/visual products, or data sets. Libraries have taken responsibility for making this information available for fair use by current students and scholars, and for preserving this information for future generations.

This model has become increasingly problematic due to a number of factors:

  1. The amount of scholarly information has increased geometrically, while library budgets have remained relatively flat, the result being that a smaller percentage of pertinent library resources are available to students and scholars than has previously been the case.

    Fact: The world produced five exabytes (or 5 million terabytes) of new information on paper, film, optical and magnetic media in 2002. That is equivalent to the amount of information in a half-million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress' print collections. (source: "How Much Information? 2003," by Peter Lyman and Hal Varian, professors at the University of California Berkeley.)

    Fact: "In 1980 there were about 120 economics journals, half of which were commercial and half non-profit. In 2000 there are almost 300 economics journals, two-thirds of which are owned by commercial publishers." (source: The Economics of Scholarly Journal Publishing, Bergstrom and Bergstrom.)

    Fact: From 1986 - 2002, the number of scholarly journals published globally increased 58%. Production of monographs doubled. (source: information courtesy of Mary Case, ARL, Director - Office of Scholarly Communication)

    Fact: "…acquisition levels for both serials and mongraphs per student continue to slide. In 2002, ARL libraries acquired 28% fewer monographs and 8% fewer serials per student than they did in 1986. In 2002, ARL libraries acquired 830 serial subscriptions and 1,540 monographs per 1,000 students and the median number of volumes added was 3.89 per student, compared to the 4.18 volumes added per student in 1986. Libraries also reported fewer staff per student in 2002 as compared to 1986: in 2002, there was a median number of 13.2 total staff per 1,000 students, compared to the 1986 figure of 16 per 1,000." (source: ARL Statistics 2001-02: Research Library Trends, Kyrillidou and Young.)

  2. The economics of information goods (e.g., electronically distributed scholarly information) is unlike the economics of other markets.

    "To those accustomed to thinking about markets for ordinary commodities like shoes or houses, the economics of information goods, such as journal access or computer software is very curious. If you sell a house to one buyer, you cannot sell the same house to others. To sell to more buyers, you must bear the costs of producing additional houses. The owner of copyrighted information does not suffer from this constraint, but is able to sell the same bit of information to many different buyers with a negligible cost of extending access to each additional buyer…. This marketing device has no direct parallel in markets for ordinary commodities, and the implications of such sales are not widely understood." (source: Do Electronic Site Licenses for Academic Journals Benefit the Scientific Community? (PDF), Bergstrom and Bergstrom. December 7, 2001.)

  3. Scholarly communication has become big business, introducing a profit motive into an industry that has always been highly subsidized. This has been exacerbated even further by a number of major mergers, resulting in almost across-the-board increases in subscription rates.

    Commercial publishers seek to maximize profits while the academy is primarily interested in maximizing distribution of findings. As a higher percentage of articles are published by commercial publishers, the academic goal of ubiquitous distribution takes a back seat. "The problem is that the variables which influence behaviour in the commercial market do not have a strong relationship with the concerns of the academic market, nor the wider community, in the context of the furtherance of science as a public good." (source: Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing. The Wellcome Trust, 2003.)

    Fact: Global Science, Technology and Medical (STM) publishing is a $7 billion industry. Scientific journals have been the fastest-growing media sub-sector of the past 15 years. (source: Morgan Stanley: Equity Research: Europe: Industry: Media: Scientific Publishing: Knowledge is Power (PDF), Paul Gooden, Matthew Owen and Sarah Simon, September 27, 2002.)

    Fact: Between 1986 and 2002 serial expenditures in research libraries increased by 227% but the number of serials purchased with these resources only increased by 9%. These rises in expenditures compare to a rise in the consumer price index of 64% during the same period. Monograph expenditures during this same period increased 62%, while the number of monographs purchased fell 5%. (source: ARL Statistics 2001-02: Research Library Trends)

    Fact: "Research has shown a very strong correlation between mergers and rates of inflation that are even higher than the general trend noted above. In one study of mergers among publishers of biomedical journals, prices were found to increase well beyond the general trend in 10 of 11 instances." (source: Publisher Mergers: A Consumer-based Approach to Antitrust Analysis (PDF), Susman, Carter and Gray, and the Information Access Alliance. June 2003.)

    Fact: Blackwell's periodical price index 1990-2000 reports a ten-year increase in prices in the humanities and social sciences of 185.9%, and 178.3% in science and technology. They report an overall increase for journals published in the United Kingdom of 204.5% and 155.3% for journals published in the United States and Canada. (source: Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing. The Wellcome Trust, 2003)

  4. With the advent of electronic publications, the UC Berkeley community expressed great interest in internet access to scholarly information. This interest is paralleled with continued interest in having access to print publications. Libraries are, therefore, under considerable pressure to purchase the same content in more than one format.

    Fact: During February and March 2003, twenty thousand UC faculty, students, and staff were invited to participate in a User Preference Survey. Seven thousand responses were received. The survey revealed "… ejournals are generally popular, frequently used, preferred for a variety of tasks and, although there are barriers, they do not outweigh the advantages, particularly of convenience... 68 percent of all respondents had used a digital journal within the last week, while 35 percent of all respondents had used a print journal during the same period. The comparable figures for faculty were 71 percent and 34 percent, respectively." (source: Collection Management Initiative — Collection Management Strategies in a Digital Environment. January 2004)

    Fact: "It is estimated that the total number of periodicals published worldwide in all disciplines is approximately 164,000. [Between 1996 and 2001] an increasing proportion of these are now available online … equivalent to 16.5 percent of the total in 2001; compared with 3.3 percent in 1996." (source: Economic Analysis of Scientific Research Publishing (PDF), The Wellcome Trust, 2003.)

  5. Publishers are crafting licensing agreements that lock libraries into subscriptions to lower-use, more marginal titles, in order to ensure access to prestigious, high-use titles.

    "… Big Deals, or portfolio pricing as it is coming to be known … obscures journal prices and reduces competition among individual titles from different publishers, contributing to the monopolistic trend of the market. [A Morgan Stanley report (PDF)] acknowledges that the publishers with the biggest online portfolios are going to drive many of the smaller commercial and society publishers out of business." (source: Big Chill on the Big Deal, Orsdel and Born. Library Journal, April 2003.)

The problems with the current model of scholarly publication have become increasingly obvious over the last several years. As publishers struggled to move from traditional print publications to online publications, libraries tended to take a "wait and see" attitude on pricing. Morgan Stanley reports (PDF) that publisher profits rise 16% as customers move from online plus print to online-only subscriptions. Libraries expected that savings publishers accrued would eventually be passed on to libraries in reduced subscription costs. This has not come to pass. Publishers have retained savings as profit, often at the same time that they have increased subscription rates. Not only have prices risen, but often at rates far higher than the consumer price index.

This model is not sustainable. The three-year, $ 4.6 million supplement to the Library's collection budget made by Chancellor Berdahl in 1998 dramatically helped the Library to rebuild collections (PDF) after losses incurred during the 1990s. Part of this money was intended as a hedge against three years of inflation. Through prudent use of these new funds, the Library has been able to make three years of inflationary protection last over five years. But this protection has now run out.

Libraries around the world are acknowledging that their sources of funding will not be able to match projected price increases sought by the publishing industry.

"The bottom line is that scholarly communication isn't financially feasible as a business model — never was, never was intended to be, and should not be." (source: Understanding the Economic Burden of scholarly communication, Cathy Davidson, Vice Provost and Professor of English, Duke University.)

In response to this crisis, individual faculty, academic institutions, concerned organizations and alternative publishers are taking action.

The Revolution

Activity on two fronts is slowly changing the world of publishing towards a more sustainable business model. On the one hand, libraries are taking much tougher stances when re-negotiating contracts, evidenced by the California Digital Libraries recent tough negotiations to better control elements of both price (via securing beneficial inflation caps over multi-year period), and the structure of "the big deal" (by securing rights to swap titles based on use and changes in a publisher's list).

On the other hand alternative publishing models are beginning to emerge. The Budapest Open Access Initiative was one of the first:

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.

As more information becomes available electronically, as storage becomes cheaper and methods of discovery become more sophisticated, scholarship itself is changing. It is now possible to not only cite the results of research, but to link to the data on which the conclusions were based. It is now possible to present director's notes and commentary together with a streamed video of a given performance. It is also possible to provide non-linear, interactive, access to materials that used to be restricted to linear argument by the nature of print publication. Scholars are already embracing these possibilities. As they do, the stakeholders in scholarly communication (authors, libraries, publishers, and scholars) need to rethink how best to organize, provide access to, and preserve this multi-layered and data-rich scholarly record. At the same time the academy will need to find ways to integrate these works into the culture of promotion and tenure.

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Last updated 04/08/10. Comments?