in the science, technology and medicine (STM) publishing market is a major driving
force for innovation, and anything that reduces competitive forces will degrade
scholarly communication. Advocates of PubMed Central (PMC)
and the Public Library of Science (PLS)
believe that scientific articles should become free to one and all soon after
publication. Their noble aspiration, however, risks catalysing the dissolution
of the present complex system of scholarly communication. The irony is that this
would hit hardest the not-for-profit scientific society publishers, whose motive
is to serve academia. Their position against the large commercial publishers who
compete with them for authors and readers would be reduced, with negative consequences
for universities - the principal consumers of scientific information - and science
The chain of producers and consumers involved in STM publishing
is complex. Assessing the implications of the PLS and PMC initiatives and other
proposed strategies for scholarly communication requires an understanding of the
roles of these players, and the interplay and forces among them that ultimately
shape and define the state of scholarly publishing.
At one extreme are
the 'irresponsible' commercial publishers whose primary interest is to make big
profits. At the other are the advocates of free access such as PMC and the PLS
who believe that scientific articles should become free to one and all soon after
Between these forces lie the responsible publishers and, at
the core, the universities and scholarly societies. Responsible publishers provide
services to science while making profits that can be considered reasonable. The
universities are home to the originators of much of the scientific literature
and, through subscriptions paid by their libraries, the source of much of the
money that keeps the current system afloat. Many of the scholarly societies -
whose memberships are often largely based in universities - publish not to generate
profits but as a service to their memberships and academia. Scholarly society
publishers and for-profit publishers compete for authors, readers and institutional
In the search for solutions to the problems and challenges
facing scientific publishing, we at HighWire Press believe that the not-for-profit
publishers are a key, and too-often neglected, link in this complex chain. Over
the past six years, society publishers have experimented with various business
models to recoup the costs of simultaneous Internet and traditional publishing
while tentatively adapting to survive what most realize will be an inevitable
transition from print to an Internet-only future. These experiments, and the accompanying
Internet innovations, are responsible acts of stewardship of the assets of the
scholarly societies by professionals serving scientific communities at the behest
and approval of the members of those communities.
'Sputnik' to the 'serials crisis'
Research universities and scientific
societies woke up late to fundamental changes in the chain of scholarly communication
caused by the 'commodification' of STM articles. That realization took between
15 and 20 years to develop, and finally crystallized in the early 1980s. The commodification
has perturbed a complex system of checks and balances for funding and evaluating
contributions in scholarly publishing. This 'system' had evolved from natural
relationships based on motivations of service arising among scholarly communities,
organized across disciplines for teaching, research and community services in
the form of universities and organized in a complementary matrix as scholarly
societies by disciplinary specialities (see box).
Universities as subscribers
are engaged in a balanced exchange of money for refereed and edited scholarly
information with society publishers, who are 'responsible', in that they are directly
accountable to their members and in large part to their institutional subscribers.
Most scholarly societies are cost-recovery publishers, if even that.
The huge investments in basic research prompted both by the Second World War and
the Western response to the launch of Sputnik, resulted in a flood of articles
in new disciplines, topics and methods. In general, scholarly societies responded
slowly to this twigging and cloning of disciplines, maintaining conservative definitions
of what constituted appropriate subjects for the journals they already published.
Many for-profit publishers, however, seized the opportunity both to provide
what was a greatly expanded population of researchers, with new outlets for their
articles in these new areas, and to publish new journals on rapidly expanding
'classic' subjects. The system of checks and balances in science held but was
fed by a widened array of refereeing panels that grew with each new journal published;
something which in itself is no bad thing.
Some of the for-profit publishers,
such as the late Robert Maxwell, recognized that scientific information was an
excellent means to secure large profits. They paid nothing for articles - as is
true for society publishers - but could charge premium prices, to institutional
subscribers, their principle customers.
Over the past three decades,
journal prices have increased annually at multiples of inflation rates or any
other measure of economic growth. The 'irresponsible' publishers have persuaded
institutional buyers, mainly librarians, that their articles are commodities with
extra value in their timely delivery; items of commerce. They have enjoyed increasingly
large profits on journal articles. This has been perfectly legal and from the
publishers' and their shareholders' perspectives quite a good thing.
These publishers have assembled and are assembling - through mergers, acquisitions
and coercive contracts with groups of scientists serving on editorial boards -
larger percentages of the number of STM journals in many subject areas in order
to continue to extract ever-larger portions of university libraries' acquisitions
budgets year after year. They use their larger share of journal titles as an inducement
to scientific authors to contribute (a wonderfully apt term) to their journals
rather than to those of responsible STM publishers, including especially those
of scientific societies.
Such 'irresponsible' publishers, however, strain
the resources of universities and scholarly societies, and have caused the so-called
'serials crisis' where libraries have had to pay more and more while being forced
to subscribe to fewer and fewer journals. This in turn has reduced access to both
STM and other scholarly information at a great many universities. The actions
of these publishers also strains - if not attacks - the symbiotic relationships
of scholarly societies and universities, and the resulting supply of manuscripts
leading to refereed, edited and published articles.
One could rightly
argue that university libraries ought to become better consumers and manage their
acquisitions budgets better, for example by refusing to subscribe to the publications
of lesser value. Other library initiatives, such as the Scholar's
Forum, the 'Tempe
Principles' and the array of activities of the Association
of Research Libraries fail to promote better informed and more aggressive
consumer behaviours in assessing the costs and benefits of their STM subscriptions.
One initiative, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition
(SPARC), seeks to encourage
competition by creating cheaper alternatives to specific high-priced titles. But
this has had the effect of stimulating the creation of yet more journals, with
many libraries subscribing to both the high-priced title and its new competitor.
If the SPARC approach is to work by providing cheaper alternatives, then libraries
should now decide to manage their acquisitions budget better by supporting SPARC
titles and not subscribing to the more expensive counterparts brought out by the
Scholarly society publishers
The launch of Internet publishing of scientific journals
in the mid-1990s could have (and still might) allowed redress of the competitive
balance between scholarly societies as publishers, and profit-gouging for-profit
publishers. Scholarly societies and universities rapidly realized that the Internet
could provide a functional counterweight to the economic debacle in the chain
of scholarly communication caused by commodification.
has also introduced substantial changes in the way research information is discovered,
retrieved and used, while online research communities offer new opportunities
for competition. From its inception in 1995, HighWire Press has worked with and
for responsible publishers, most of them scholarly societies, to try to make responsible
publishers more competitive in the marketplace for authors, readers and institutional
PMC and the organizers of the PLS proposals threaten to
create another strain on the resources and services of universities and scholarly
societies. All of their rejoinders notwithstanding, nothing the PMC or PLS has
done will have much effect on irresponsible publishers unless they decide to deposit
their articles in PMC and agree to the PLS 'rules' - this is a most unlikely,
and even suicidal, event.
Advocates of PMC and the PLS, argue that scientific
articles should be 'free.' They seem to be asserting that publishers should receive
recompense not for the article per se, because these are provided free by scientists,
but for added value, as though all the work publishers perform gathering, organizing,
editing, marketing and distributing articles are not aspects of value.
Such advocates, like the 'irresponsible' for-profit publishers, also believe that
it is the most recent scientific articles that are especially valuable. They also
consider, as do responsible and irresponsible STM publishers, that article manuscripts
should be provided without charge to the publisher. Unlike some publishers, both
PMC and PLS seek to limit the time that any publisher would have exclusive rights
to distribute articles they publish. But PMC and PLS err in that they consider
indiscriminately all groups of STM publishers as players in a commodities game,
and do not appear to be concerned about the serious impact their actions may have
on the not-for-profit societies and thus on universities.
may cost scholarly publishing dearly
If PMC and PLS were to succeed
in their aims, they could weaken the competitive position of scholarly societies
vis-à-vis irresponsible publishers. One of PMC's rules is that publishers
who agree to join must make their articles available free once these are more
than 12 months old - it prefers that articles are made free on publication, or
within six months.
As Ann Okerson points out in her
contribution to this forum, this demand - as well as the PLS's proposed boycott
- risks putting pressure on the resources of scholarly societies. This would weaken
the scholarly societies financially and reduce the competitive position of these
cost-recovery publishers as desirable outlets for scientific authors. Those who
would stand to gain would be the large commercial publishers who compete with
them for authors and readers, and who have deeper pockets. As the publications
of scholarly societies declined, the dependency of universities on publications
of those for-profit publishers that are 'irresponsible' would increase.
A recent change in PMC's rules, announced in this forum, drops a previous requirement
that participating publishers physically deposit their articles on a PMC central
server. This may ease some of the concerns of responsible publishers, as it means
they would keep their content on their own websites, and simply allow PMC to index
As testified to by several of the contributions to this
forum, the future directions of electronic publishing can only be guessed at,
and we would be wise to keep open a diverse range of options. PMC, for example,
seems devoted to its own standards of coding for electronic articles. At first
sight that might be considered as a sensible first step toward creating a universal
digital archive. However, it is unclear whether PMC and the National Library of
Medicine (NLM) have addressed the many alternative proposed systems for preserving
electronic literature - such as standards and systems for migration, emulation,
encapsulation and various forms of conversion for physical storage. (For brief
definitions of these terms see the website
on the preservation of digital assets published by the National Library of Australia).
Remarkably, PMC and NLM have not been prominent in the vigorous national and international
debates over issues involved in the preservation of digital data.
far below the surface of the PLS argument, lurks the consequent demise of the
entire scheme of scholarly communication as we know it today. Some of the public
reactions of the PLS to the arguments made by responsible publishers indicate
that many signatories to the PLS open letter are unaware of this implication.
Members of scholarly societies might ask themselves whether the PLS is a
reaction to conservatism by their societies in managing and funding their programmes,
including their publishing programmes, or some other social phenomenon. Scholarly
societies themselves must be quicker and more responsive in serving the scholarly
communication needs of newly developing sub-communities of scholars, if they are
not to leave these opportunities open to predation by others with different motives.
Ironically, the combination of changes pursued by the PMC and the PLS could
reduce the competitiveness of responsible publishers, and reduce their utility
to universities and the scientific community. We need to recognize the effectiveness,
efficiency and equitable balance in the value exchange between scholarly societies
and universities, particularly in STM journal publishing. Moreover, a key objective
should be to seek ways to improve the competitive position of scholarly societies
and other responsible publishers - both in terms of economics, and Internet functionality
- against that of irresponsible publishers. In this way, the beneficial effects
of checks and balances in scientific scholarship can be reasserted, and the negative
effect of the serials crisis redressed.
Checks and balances:
a brief summary of the essentials of the scholarly publishing system
complex system of checks and balances for funding and evaluating contributions
in scholarly publishing involves the following:
1. a scholar devises a hypothesis.
2. a scholar approaches a funding agency to get resources to test the hypothesis.
3. the funding agency asks its own staff and external specialists to review the
hypothesis, the credibility of the scholar proposing the test, and the importance
of the hypothesis from their own perspective of their slice of the scientific
galaxy; this is a check in the system
4. if funding is forthcoming, the scholar
performs the experiments to test the hypotheses, and prepares reports of results.
5. in the scheme of checks and balances, as I see it, in some disciplines, early
versions of the reports, or preprints, are distributed to colleagues for comment
and advice, as well as to speed up the process of communicating results.
reports of results of the tests are sent to peer-reviewed journals who expose
these to scrutiny by qualified referees, who decide whether the scholarship and
the tests are sufficient, and whether the article is likely to be of interest
to readers of the journal; this is another check and is balanced vis-à-vis
earlier and later checks, by being independent of these.
7. if accepted, the
published reports become available to readers, who may make use of the results
and experimental methods reported, or may replicate the same tests themselves;
often there will be published commentary in later issues of the peer-reviewed
publication, on the specific report, on the tests more generally, or on the wider
8. libraries and individuals purchase subscriptions to the published
reports that the consider most appropriate to their needs, whether as individuals
or as agents working for communities; the libraries' versions are made very widely
available, in print and if chosen, on-line; the choice to acquire the published
reports is another check in the scheme, a sort of tertiary validation.
the scholar, having successfully obtained the research grant, and published peer-reviewed
reports of the work supported by the grant, gains further academic credibility,
and is in a better position to obtain funding for further research.
cycle continues ad libitum
After 5 to 7 years of research
and publication, the university-based scholar usually is in a position to undergo
tenure review. Local and outside experts base their evaluation of candidates,
largely on the ability of the latter to obtain funding, and on their contributions
to the wellsprings of knowledge, measured in particular by the quality of the
peer-reviewed and published reports of their scholarship. This is a fourth, higher-order,
independent check in the system.