Electronic Genesis: E-Journals in the Sciences

By Buckholtz, Alison | Academe, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

Electronic Genesis: E-Journals in the Sciences


Buckholtz, Alison, Academe


The high price of commercial journals threatens scientific communications. A coalition of universities, libraries, and learned societies is using electronic publishing to reverse that trend.

IN THE BEGINNING, CURIOUS SCIENTISTS CONducted research on the heaven and the earth. On the first day, these scientists banded together to form communities of interest. These communities became known as professional societies. And it was good.

On the second day, others expressed interest in the scientists' findings. And it was very good.

On the third day, societies published their findings in journals. These journals reached the widest possible audience through affordable subscriptions to individuals and libraries. Subscription fees were reinvested in science, and discipline-specific communities flourished. The future seemed bright indeed.

On the fourth day, commercial publishers bought scientific journals.

On the fifth day, publishers merged, acquired smaller firms, and achieved sky-high profits by raising journal subscription rates. Libraries cut scores of monographs and journals in the humanities and social sciences to maintain subscriptions to the expensive journals their science faculty demanded. A black cloud settled over scholarly communications.

On the sixth day, scientists, professional societies, librarians, and academic administrators began to discuss solutions.

On the seventh day, they approached their university colleagues and asked for support.

THE EXPULSION OF SCIENTIFIC JOURNALS FROM the Edenic world of scholarly-society publishing comes as no surprise to those who have tracked the commercialization of research during the past few decades. Science is big business. In this brave new world where market forces, not fellowships, drive research, the emergence of the scientific journal as profit maker is one of publishing's best-kept secrets. And that development is holding back the march of science.

Since the university professors for whom journals are written have no occasion to view-or pay-the subscription bills, most fail to understand the extent of the problem created by escalating journal costs. When libraries cut back on subscriptions because of high journal prices, the journals that remain in circulation make up for the falling subscriptions by raising their rates. Faculty suffer from reduced availability of research materials. Members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) subscribe to 7 percent fewer journals today than they did in 1986but they're spending 152 percent more to subscribe. And when libraries cut subscriptions to journals published by scholarly societies, the subscription fees these societies usually reinvest in science also disappear.

Science for scientists has become an endangered concept. Although journals are produced through the labor of researchers who contribute their time and skill for the benefit of their professional community, the net effect is a contribution to commercial publishers' high profits. But research libraries are under intense pressure to subscribe to journals in which their science faculty publish, regardless of the expense.

Profit or Perish

FOR A FEW YEARS, ACCORDING TO MARY CASE, DIRECTOR of scholarly communications at the ARL, the price of science journals rose so high that librarians had no choice but to cut acquisition of monographs in the humanities and social sciences. "The sciences depend on timely information in a way that other fields do not," Case explains. "Besides that, science researchers are perceived as bringing in enormous amounts of grant money."

The rates for sciences journals are hefty. An annual institutional subscription to Brain Research will put a library budget back $15,203, and a year of one nuclear physics tide costs almost $11,500. A pharmacology journal considered to fall on the midpoint of the price scale runs almost $7,000.

Publishers plead the high cost of paper. …

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