Landman Library

The Scholarly Communication Crisis

The Rising Costs of Journals

Traditionally, scholars at research institutions have made their research available through a “gift exchange” arrangement, whereby they submit articles to publishers and serve on peer-review editorial boards with little or no expectation of personal financial gain, but with the implicit understanding that the publishers will provide the widest possible audience for their research. As outlined in the article The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What To Do About It) “Beginning in the late 1960s and early ’70s, this gift exchange began to break down. A few commercial publishers recognized that research generated at public expense and given freely for publication by the authors represented a commercially exploitable commodity”. 

Prior to this breakdown, most journals were published by scholarly societies that charged enough for their journals to break even and fund society activities, but were essentially not-for-profit ventures. By contrast, the current academic journal market is dominated by a few very large multinational firms that have methodically bought up the top titles in various fields and steadily ratcheted up the prices for them. As the article explains, “The old model operated on the basis of gift exchange to ensure wide distribution of what was readily acknowledged—indeed trumpeted—as clearly a public good. The new model operates for profit; it essentially says, “If you want access, pay up and we’ll set the prices”.” 

As commercial publishers came to dominate academic publishing, North American research libraries faced an average annual increase of 8.5% in journal prices between 1986 and 2001. While the costs continued to inflate, a trend that is deeply troubling to many university libraries emerged: bundling. This trend entails publishers offering libraries packages of titles, as opposed to the traditional single-title-subscription model. While such bundling deals often mean that libraries pay less, on average, per title, it also means that libraries are often forced into subscribing to less-popular titles in order to gain access to the more heavily used journals in the bundle. It takes away one of the libraries most important responsibilities: tailoring its collection to its users’ needs.

Faced with ever-increasing journal prices and dwindling budgets, universities are being forced to take action. Starting as early as 2003 major research institutions began canceling or greatly altering their subscriptions to these high-cost vendors. Some top Ivy League schools, along side smaller liberal arts colleges, pulled away from some of the top commercial publishers as a direct response to the skyrocketing costs. Challenging the system further, some universities started to encourage faculty to be aware of the habits of the publishers they submit their works to, and developed services and education to empower faculty authors to take action as well. 

More recently, as outlined in the article Essay on Open Access Scholarship (Inside HigherEd, 2012), several university presidents have weighed in, saying “We expect these publishers, as partners to our universities, to provide services that optimize the dissemination of our scholars’ work; we do not expect them to place the quest for excessive profit ahead of academic values and service to the public”.

Authors Rights and the Publishing Agreement

Note to authors of research articles: it’s YOUR copyright and intellectual property until you sign it away!

Some publishers require you to sign away your rights to your intellectual property in order to have your research published. In such cases, you may lose all control over further reproduction or dissemination of your work. You may need to seek the publisher’s permission to use your own work in a course packet, or to post it on your personal website or in an institutional repository such as ScholarWorks@Arcadia. Further, the library is often forced to pay prohibitively high prices to buy back access to the work that you freely gave to the publisher. Thus, you and your the library could find yourselves locked out from your own published research.

Controlling access to your work makes a lot of sense for publishers, many of whom are realizing huge profits by doing so, but increasing publisher control of intellectual property represents a grave threat to the scholarly communication system. As a scholar working in a milieu where the rewards of publishing are impact and prestige rather than personal monetary gain, you presumably want the largest possible audience for your work, and the ability to disseminate it however you see fit. Signing over your intellectual property rights is often at odds with these goals.

Perhaps the most troubling is that most authors of research articles rarely, if ever, read the publisher’s agreement. These official documents control the dissemination of that scholarship, and being aware of the publisher’s policies is just as essential as the publisher’s reputation. Another option available to authors that has emerged is to add an addenda to the publisher’s agreement, allowing an author to retain enough rights to the scholarship to post a version of it on a personal website, in a course pack, or in an institutional repository. 

Author’s are becoming increasingly aware of these options, and are starting to seek assistance from their provosts, libraries, and other scholarly communication advocacy groups as a means to take back some control over the dissemination of their hard work.

For more information, see our For Authors and Copyright pages.