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A Wedge in the Door of Scholarly Communication

From: portal: Libraries and the Academy
Volume 4, Number 2, April 2004
pp. vii-x | 10.1353/pla.2004.0033

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.2 (2004) vii-x

The last weeks of 2003 have witnessed events that are cause for some celebration among those who have worked for changes in the scholarly communication structure but also should make us concerned and a bit wary about what challenges lie ahead.

A large number of librarians in the academic and research communities have been working for a long time toward a system of scholarly communication different from the one that has developed gradually since the early years of the twentieth century—a system bolstered by the increasing pressures upon scholars to publish or perish and the ever-splintering of disciplines into narrower subspecialties, each of which requires its own core journals, basic texts, and monographs. For what seemed like an excruciatingly long time, these librarians felt as though they were fighting the battle on their own, without the support of the scholars and faculty with whom they worked. One would open the mail to find yet another spiral of costs for journals and serials, especially in the sciences, technology, medicine, and law. One would feel constrained, however, from canceling these journals; because, after all, the faculty needed them on campus for their own research purposes and as an assurance that their library was a quality institution.

Change in this system has been happening, although until one or two years ago no one would have suspected it. In the late 1990s, some academic librarians simply became fed up with the prices that they were required to pay—to repurchase the scholarship that had been created on their own campuses. In response they created the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), "an alliance of universities, research libraries, and organizations built as a constructive response to market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system." Dozens of libraries worldwide are members of SPARC, which has worked with scholars to help establish open access, freely available journals, first in the sciences and now in all disciplines. Speaking out for this kind of change were librarians, certainly, but they were being joined gradually by faculty, researchers, and higher education administrators who perceived that the system was broken and could no longer be tolerated by institutions of higher learning and their libraries.

Still, change was slow in coming, and the numbers that were heard were not large. SPARC first endorsed one open access journal, then another. Momentum has picked up and today there are 25 SPARC "partners" publishing 234 journals. In addition, as of February 2004, there were 736 titles in the Directory of Open Access Journals. This number is not bad at all, but academia is slow to give up its core journals and prestigious publishers to publish in new and unknown vehicles that might not show up well for a promotion and tenure committee—an understandable concern. As a result, it is likely that there are not as many articles in these 654 journals as there are in the same number of commercial journals. Since these are open access journals, however, the availability of the information is immediate and ubiquitous; and authors are able to see immediately the impact of their writings.

Added to this fact is the tendency of authors to make their works accessible, also, on their own personal Web sites or in a growing number of institutional repositories. Suddenly the expensive commercial journals—now often available only within "bundles" of all of the publishers' journals and on those campuses that can afford to pay the licensing fees for these bundled resources—are being less used because fewer people nationwide or worldwide can gain access to them. To read these articles you must be a member of a university community or consortium that has decided it can pay the exorbitant cost of accessing these journals. One must surmise that this population was small in number to begin with, and that number is decreasing as libraries and consortia can no longer pay the amounts requested. But the open access journals, although young and unknown, are readily available; a scholar's work can be found by doing a search on the Internet and then can be used by anyone, anywhere, at no cost whatsoever.


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