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portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003) 337-340
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Scholarly Communication and the Academy:
The Importance of the ACRL Initiative
The system of scholarly communication (through which research is produced, reviewed for quality, published, disseminated, and made available to scholars over time) is coming under increasing stresses. In the view of some, including this author, those stresses are reaching crisis proportions.
One core aspect of the growing crisis—library serials pricing—has been with us for a long time. Prices for scholarly journals have increased for over three decades at rates well beyond general inflation in the economy. Academic libraries have coped with this problem in various ways over the years—by canceling subscriptions, resorting to less desirable means of access (such as document delivery), and reducing monographic purchases. What's relatively new is the realization that this problem is symptomatic of larger systemic issues.
One example of this new perception is the fact that the library serials issue is directly linked to the problems of university presses. Faced with increasing costs and declining library markets (the average research library reduced monographic purchases by 25 percent during the past fifteen years), university presses are responding by publishing fewer and fewer specialized monographs. That trend led the President of the Modern Language Association to alert MLA members to the fact that many university presses are simply no longer publishing any specialized monographs in language and literature areas. He went on to advise college and universities to revise their expectations for tenure for young scholars.
New network-based electronic technologies, which can provide wide access to information at substantially reduced cost, do have the potential to transform the system. But as publishers have shifted from print to electronic journals, they have moved from subscription pricing for individual titles to licensing agreements for packages of journals, and there's growing evidence that they are using those packages to perpetuate extraordinarily high price increases. I recently received a call from a colleague who [End Page 337] complained that a major scientific publisher was trying to impose—under a very short timeline—a renewal licensing agreement for all of that publisher's journals that would have increased his library's cost by over 11 percent annually, more than 33 percent over the life of the three-year agreement. Increases of that magnitude simply aren't sustainable, even for the wealthiest libraries. That same publisher was reported to be avoiding licensing agreements with library consortia, which give group buying-power to libraries, in favor of agreements with individual libraries, which place the bargaining power in the hands of the publisher and result in uneven prices from one library to another.
Many of us who follow scholarly communication issues carefully are especially concerned about the power of the publishing industry (along with some software and media interests) to influence national policy in ways that have serious negative consequences for the system of scholarly communication. To the extent that those interests are successful, the power of publishers and software companies to impose licensing terms upon libraries will increase (as is threatened by further state passage of UCITA); fair use of information in digital formats will erode (as has already occurred through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act); and information that previously has been in the public domain will be privatized (as evidenced by the recent demise of PubScience). The net effect of such changes will be greater costs to libraries and less access to scholarship. That unfortunate result will occur unless the library and higher education community can become much more effective in advocacy efforts.
Most of the fundamental problems in the system of scholarly communication stem ultimately from the fact that the academy has—gradually and over many years—given increasing control over scholarship to commercial interests. Change in the overall system will only occur only to the extent that faculty, higher education administrators, librarians, and others in the academy unite to reassert control over scholarship.
There have been a number of encouraging developments in recent years, which indicate...