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October 26, 2000

SCHOLARLY PUBLISHING: No single villain, but commercial publishers said to be the "bad guys"

"It would be a mistake to think there is some demon we can kill and everything will be okay" with scholarly publishing, Provost James V. Maher said at the Oct. 18 University Senate fall plenary session.

The problems go beyond skyrocketing journal costs to the root of scholarship and university values, the provost said.

For example, new copyright laws and reinterpretations of existing ones threaten traditional intellectual property rights of universities and individual scholars, he said. And so far, Maher said, academicians have failed to address what he called "the vast new opportunities and serious new challenges" of electronic publishing.

But even in the absence of a single villain to blame for the current crisis in scholarly communication, commercial publishers remain major bad guys, according to statistics cited by University Library System (ULS) director Rush G. Miller.

A few decades ago, he pointed out, American scholarly journals were published by learned societies. Since then, a handful of European commercial houses — Reed Elsevier, Kluwer, and Springer Verlag, among them — have bought up 75 percent of U.S. scientific journals, Miller said.

These merger-happy publishers ("They absorb one another like the old Pac-Man game," Miller quipped) earn billions of dollars annually publishing scientific journals, and now have their sights set on acquiring journals in the humanities and social sciences, said Miller.

Subscription costs for scientific journals "are literally out of control. I've been a library director for 26 years, and the costs have been out of control for my entire career," rising 10-12 percent annually, Miller said. "I remember a year in the 1980s when the overall journal inflation rate nationwide was 26 percent."

The average price of a physics journal has risen to $1,500, said Miller. A library subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology today costs $15,000, up from $1,920 in 1985, he said. "The only difference is that,

in 1990, it was purchased by a commercial publisher," according to Miller.

From 1986 to 1996, the Consumer Price Index rose by 44 percent, scholarly monographs went up by 62 percent, health care by 84 percent and scholarly journals by 148 percent, Miller said.

Publishers say that as the volume of scientific research expands, they are printing more pages and must pass their increased costs on to subscribers, Miller said.

But that does not begin to explain double-digit inflation in journal prices, he argued. "It is not justified by any measurement. What has been shown by research study after research study is that mergers have more impact on prices than any other single thing."

When a publisher spends $30 million-$100 million to acquire another publisher, it has to make that money back. "They do it by raising prices," Miller said.

As financially strapped libraries cancel subscriptions, he said, publishers simply hike prices for remaining subscribers.

"A few years ago, Reed Elsevier announced a profit of 40 percent on investments to its stockholders," Miller recalled. "They have consciously taken that figure down to 25 percent this year because of the image problem this created. It created a firestorm against that company in the academic world and they are still suffering from the bad image created."

Miller said it's no coincidence that TIAA-CREF, the academic retirement annuity giant, is a major Reed Elsevier stockholder: TIAA-CREF recognizes a highly profitable investment when it sees one.

The "geometric explosion of scientific publication" is compounding the problem of journal price inflation, Miller said. The amount of published scientific information is increasing by 13 percent annually; 7,000 new journal articles are published daily, he noted.

"Most libraries spend 70-80 percent of their journal budgets on scientific literature. The number of journal titles in the sciences in most libraries is 20-30 percent of the total. So, we spend about 70 percent of the money on 30 percent of the titles," squeezing out humanities journals.

While Pitt has canceled subscriptions, the University "has been insulated a great deal from this phenomenon," Miller said, thanks to generous annual increases in ULS's acquisitions budget and shrewd acquisitions strategies — eliminating multiple subscriptions among University libraries; cutting expensive, low-use titles; and forming journal-buying consortia with other universities, among other things.

"We are a bit of an anomaly. That's probably one reason we haven't had a [Senate] plenary session before on this issue, because we haven't felt the crisis as much here," Miller said.

Provost Maher added, "We are proud that, here at Pitt, we've done a good job of keeping up our collections. It's not easy, and it has impacted other aspects of our budget."

But Maher cautioned those in the Senate audience: "Even if you're happy with your library, you need to understand that students and faculty members at other universities, who you would like to be reading your work, are not able to get to your work because their universities are not keeping up their collections."

He and Miller urged faculty to follow guidelines developed by SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), a partnership between the Association of Research Libraries (including Pitt's ULS) and the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Through SPARC, Miller said, libraries are confronting commercial publishers and fighting for lower journal prices; creating less expensive, alternative electronic journals; pressing for technology to guarantee long-term preservation and archiving of electronic media, and defending intellectual property rights.

SPARC encourages faculty to (among other things) submit papers to e-journals and serve on their editorial boards; explore alternatives to contracting or selling publications to commercial publishers; and carefully examine pricing, copyright and licensing agreements of any commercially published journal to which they contribute as author, reviewer or editor.

For more information, see the SPARC Website at:

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 5

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