February 11, 2004

"Market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system"

Many academics who have editorial responsibilities in journals are taking action to counter the huge price increases over the last few years for journals published by commercial presses like Elsevier and Springer-Verlag. There has been an increase of approximately 250% in the price of journals over the last ten years. But that's not the only impact that commercial presses are having on the journals in university libraries.

There are many quality journals published by university presses. But these journals are in danger of being crowded out of the budgets allocated to university libraries. In the last few years, commercial presses like Elsevier are keen on selling contracts for online access to their entire collection. They want to move from the shipping of print journals to the libraries, to the subscription model where the university pays for access to the entire journal collection (back issues as well, for higher prices). Each year, the money has to keep coming in, otherwise access is cutoff. The key to higher profits for the commercial presses is that the entire collection is offered for online access; typically the library cannot pick and choose which journals to access online. The result is that departments have to vote on whether they want to have online access, but this might actually take up the entire budget allocated to the department as library funds leaving little or nothing for journals from university presses.

Academics, in many fields, are not passively accepting these changes in how they communicate their results to each other. There are several cases in which the entire editorial board has resigned from a journal published by a commercial press and in each case a new, open-access journal has been created that usually has the same set of editorial board members.

Here is a short list of some examples:

  • "Scientific Publishing: A mathematician's viewpoint" by Joan Birman of Columbia University, published in Notices of the AMS 47, 7 (August 2000). This article provides a distinction between various journal publishers and provides a case study of alternatives:

    1. Shop for a new publisher

      In November 1999 the complete editorial board (50 editors) of the Journal of Logic Programming (JLP), published by Elsevier Science, collectively resigned and founded a new journal Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (TPLP) published by Cambridge University Press (SFU faculty member Veronica Dahl is an area editor for TPLP). The price reduction for libraries was 55%.

    2. Start a new non-profit journal

      Birman documents the efforts of Warwick University professors in starting Geometry and Topology (G&T) as a free online journal.

  • "Towards free access to scientific literature," by Kryzystof Apt published in Niuw Archief voor Wiskunde 5, 2 (2001), 251-255.
  • Journal of Machine Learning Research was created in response to the pricing of the major journal in the field of machine learning: Machine Learning published by Kluwer. The current subscription rate for Machine Learning for institutions is USD 1148.00 plus 20% for the online version. In contrast, final versions of JMLR are published electronically (ISSN 1533-7928) and freely available on the web, and a paper volume (ISSN 1532-4435) is published 8 times annually and sold to libraries and individuals by the MIT Press. The print version of JMLR is available to libraries for USD 400 which includes the online version.
  • In 2003, the editorial board of Journal of Algorithms, published by Elsevier, resigned to form a new journal called ACM Transactions on Algorithms. The history of this move is documented in the following letters:

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) labels the contemporary trend towards overpriced journals and subscription-based pay-per-view journal publishing as "market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system". Their web page lists the growing number of open-access journals, where the papers they choose to publish (based on the usual mechanisms of peer review) are freely available on the web.

It is important to note that in many cases, the original journal that was abandoned by the editorial board is taken over by other academics, and in some cases are still publishing vital results in the field. The key here is that in each of these cases, there is an alternative source of archival quality results for that field. The creation of new journals also does not address the price of access to older, seminal results in a field. In some cases, libraries are actually getting rid of older print copies of journals, since now there is online access to those journals (but now as a subscription service).

Update: Tue Aug 10th 11:05am. Fernando Pereira on Fresh Tracks has two posts on open access journals and journal pricing from big business publishers.

Posted by anoop at February 11, 2004 03:34 PM