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  May 3, 2004

Library Panel Urges Free
Online Access To Scholarly Journals

A movement that began just a few years ago to provide open access to scholarly journal articles on the Internet may be the long-term solution to the current crisis in scholarly communications, according to a panel addressing the topic last week in Konover Auditorium.

The event was organized by the University Libraries.

As soaring journal prices out-strip libraries' ability to pay for them, the panelists said, what's at stake are fundamental issues of who owns the results of scholarly research and who has access to it. Open-access journals, published electronically, accessible and free to all, would make the results of research more widely available and could boost its impact.

The ballooning costs of scholarly journal subscriptions have been a concern for academic libraries for more than two decades. UConn's libraries, like many similar libraries, recently decided to shift nearly all their journal subscriptions to electronic access only.

The speakers laid the blame for the high prices squarely at the feet of commercial publishers.

Phil Davis, a librarian at Cornell, said "Scholarly publishing has gone from a model of maximizing dissemination to one of maximizing profit. Journals published by professional societies, government, and university presses cost far less than their commercial counterparts."

He compared two similar, prestigious journals in the field of genetics: Genetics, published by Stanford University's HighWire Press, which offers free access to back issues dating as far back as 1916 for about $700 a year, and Gene, published by Elsevier, which offers no free access, is available only as part of a package of 108 journals for about $11,000 a year. Back issues are available only since 1995.

Other factors contributing to the problem include a reduction in personal and departmental subscriptions, which began in the mid-1970's when the widespread use of photocopiers meant that individuals could obtain cheap copies of articles without purchasing the journals, he said. This led to greater reliance on library copies of journals, which in turn enabled publishers to increase their prices.

"The consumer is not sensitive to price if the library pays," he said, "and in general, libraries are very insensitive to price increases. They tend to complain a lot, but they also tend to hold on to their subscriptions. The library   tries to become the location of last record on campus."

More recently, bundling of titles means that an institution has to pay a higher price to purchase the journals it does want, while being forced to purchase some unneeded titles as well. Site licensing - the purchase of one big subscription for an institution - also constrains the institution's ability to tailor its journal subscriptions to its particular needs.

"These factors together have led to a reduction in the serial holdings of academic libraries," Davis said.

Stuart Shieber, a computer science professor at Harvard University, said many of the costs involved in journal publishing are not paid by the publisher. The original scholarly research, writing, editing, reviewing, revising, copy editing, and typesetting are all done free, he said. The publisher is responsible only for printing and making the journal accessible, marketing it, and archiving it. Yet only the publisher makes a profit.

Shieber suggested that journals should be distributed only by electronic means, with just a few printed copies distributed to archives around the world.

He said researchers typically worry that electronic journals have less prestige, or that no one wants to read online.

He had answers for each of these concerns: citation data gathered by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) about journals in the field of artificial intelligence, for example, show that the electronic journals have more prestige than their commercially published counterparts, he said. And readers can print copies of articles off the Internet.

"The electronic medium doesn't need to be seen as a way of reading journals, but as a way of distributing them," he said.

The concerns of commercial publishers are different, he said: "They worry that open-access journals are not financially tenable. If there was open access, the publishers would have to charge what it really costs them to publish." The major cost underlying scholarly articles, he said, is the cost of the research itself, which is not borne by the publishers.

Shieber had suggestions for what the academic community can do to ameliorate the situation:

Faculty can work for more open copyright agreements, he said: "I don't sign publishers' copyright agreements any more, I sign my own. I keep all rights except the non-exclusive right to publish the article, so I can post my papers to my website."

Libraries can cancel journals, he suggested, to put pressure on publishers.

And universities can support open access in various ways, he said, for example, by underwriting open-access publication charges, and providing open-access servers to house disciplinary or institutiona l repositories.

Julia Blixrud of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), said open access journals make scholarly materials available to everyone in the world. They also have the potential to expand the impact of research, she said.

"We're talking about material that is intended to be given away by scholars and researchers for the betterment of society," she said.

SPARC was established in 1998 to explore options for technology to transform scholarly publishing. It now has more than 200 members.

For more information about these issues, see the University Libraries website: about/publications/scholarlycommunication.html.