Scholarly Journals in the Digital Age

By Rapple, Brendan | Contemporary Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Scholarly Journals in the Digital Age

Rapple, Brendan, Contemporary Review

THE economics of scholarly publishing are stark. According to statistics compiled by the Library and Statistics Unit, based at Loughborough University, journals purchased by research libraries in the UK have increased in price an average of 11 per cent a year since 1991-92, while the consumer price index has only increased 2.7 per cent a year. Such startling price increases resulted in libraries spending 19 per cent more per student to subscribe to 18 per cent fewer journal titles in 1990-2000 than in 1991-92.

The most expensive journals tend to be in scientific and medical fields. Particularly egregious titles include Brain Research (almost 18,000 [euro] annually), European Journal of Pharmacology (over 8,000 [euro] annually), Gene (over (7,000 [euro] annually), American Journal of Medical Genetics (over 7,000 [euro] annually), Journal of Neuroscience Research (over (6,000 [euro] annually). Moreover, with more of the budget being devoted to purchasing journals, research libraries are buying up to 20 per cent fewer monographs per student today than a decade ago, a development that is adversely affecting humanities and arts researchers in particular. Admittedly, the growing proportion of library budgets that is necessarily being spent on electronic resources is also playing its part in the decreasing acquisitions of both journals and monographs. Still, the outrageous costs of many journals is having an extremely deleterious effect on the intellectual capital of academic libraries. To counter this crisis in scholarly communication SPARC Europe, the European branch of the North American SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), has recently been established. The goal of SPARC Europe, a growing alliance of European research libraries, library organizations and research institutions, is to publicize problems of scholarly communication due largely to rising journal costs, and to seek appropriate solutions.

While publishers strive to justify the exponential increase in journal prices by pointing to increasing costs of publishing infrastructure, printing and so on, many university personnel attribute the increase to publishers' hunger for profits. Certainly, it is a hunger that publishers are presently able to satisfy. Scholarship has a very focused and limited demand; in economic terms demand is highly inelastic for continuing subscriptions to journals. So, with librarians generally reluctant to cancel subscriptions to sought-after journals, publishers continue to raise prices ever higher. Indeed, when libraries do cancel journals, the main result is even higher prices for continuing subscribers. Accordingly, being obliged to purchase proportionally fewer journals and monographs, it is increasingly difficult for individual university libraries to satisfy the research needs of their faculty and students. Moreover, the cutting back on acquisitions by other libraries globally means that scholarship in general is not being as widely diffused, read, and cited as is desirable. In a nutshell, it is arguable that mainly due to high journal prices, the optimal dissemination of scholarship is being impeded by certain commercial publishers whose very rationale is presumably such dissemination.

The livelihood of creative writers generally depends on the access restrictions placed on their writings, that is, the money the public pays to buy their work. While Martin Amis undoubtedly would like as many as possible to read his novels, it is also probable that he wants a substantial proportion of his readers to pay for the privilege in order for him to receive royalties. However, academic writers rarely receive remuneration for articles they publish in scholarly journals. Indeed, scientists sometimes actually pay page charges. Moreover, faculty do more than write the articles. They generally submit them electronically leaving the publisher little if any typesetting to do. Faculty also perform the peer review function and often edit the journals. …

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Scholarly Journals in the Digital Age


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