From: Arthur Cammers (cammers$##$caribe.chem.uky.edu)
Date: Tue Dec 08 1998 - 16:22:10 EST
I think the following has something to do with the direction that
publication in chemical journals is taking. If nothing else, hopefully
the text below from the NY times will provoke thought.
Esoteric and highly technical, scientific journals have never been
viewed as a hot publication market. In recent years, however, scientific
journals have become big business, with large commercial publishers
entering a scene once dominated by nonprofit scientific societies whose
only goal was to disseminate scientific information.
It is a change that many academics say has sent prices skyrocketing --
with some journals now costing libraries more than $15,000 a year.
But scientists, whose universities are often unable to afford the very
journals to which they are giving their research findings, are now teaming
with irate librarians to fight back. They are creating their own journals
to compete with expensive commercial publications, and offering them at
one-half to one-twentieth the price.
Fomenting this revolution is Sparc, the Scholarly Publishing and
Academic Resources Coalition, a group of more than 100 major research
libraries helping these rebel journals get established by committing to
Many of the new journals are coming out of scientific societies, but
the poster child of the movement is Evolutionary Ecology Research, created
by a professor who was so fed up with commercial publishers' raising the
price of a journal that was his brainchild that he abandoned it, starting
a new journal with his own money and the editorial assistance of his wife.
"The original deal was that the journal would be available as
inexpensively as possible," said Dr. Michael Rosenzweig, a professor at
the University of Arizona whose entire board of editors defected along
with him. "This has got to stop."
Although the battle is being fought over subscription prices, what is
really at stake, researchers say, is the scientific process itself, which
depends so heavily on the ready exchange of scientific information.
"These prices have been a complete disaster," said Ken Frazier,
director of the general library system at the University of Wisconsin and
chairman of Sparc's steering committee. With many journal prices
increasing 20 percent to 30 percent a year, Frazier said his libraries
were forced to drop half their physics journals in the last decade.
"How can you repeatedly increase prices and not understand that you're
damaging scholarly communications?" he asked. "What must they be
Commercial publishers insist, however, that their publications are high
quality and remain a good value. "The goal of any business is to make
money," said Dr. Peter Sheperd, managing director of Elsevier Science in
Switzerland, a division of Reed Elsevier, one of the biggest commercial
publishers of scientific journals. "I don't see that as incompatible with
serving the needs of scientific communication."
The real problem, many say, is that commercial publishers have
discovered they can raise prices with impunity, since universities must
buy the most important journals, no matter what the cost. And scientists
will continue to publish their best work, even in journals neither they
nor their libraries can afford, because prestigious publications are
crucial to getting grants, promotion and tenure.
"Commercial publishers began to realize the gold mine that they had and
that everything was working to their advantage," said Mary Case, director
of the Office of Scholarly Communications at the Association of Research
Libraries in Washington.
In fact, researchers say, academia is a paradise for publishers. First
the public pays for most scientific research through, for example, the
National Science Foundation. Then universities pay the salaries of
scientists who do virtually all the writing, reviewing and editing.
Universities sometimes even provide free office space to journals.
Finally, authors typically sign over their copyright to publishers, who
can sometimes bring in many millions of dollars a year in subscriptions
for a single high-priced journal -- subscriptions paid by university
libraries supported by tax dollars and tuition.
Commenting on the profits being made by commercial publishers, Dr. Mark
McCabe, an economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who is one of
the few researchers studying this unusual market, said, "It is clearly
Librarians say that what happened with Rosenzweig's journal was
Twelve years ago, Rosenzweig, a professor at the University of Arizona,
came up with the idea for the journal Evolutionary Ecology and began
publishing it with Chapman & Hall. Then Chapman & Hall was bought by
International Thomson Corp. and the journal was then sold to Wolters
Kluwer, an international publishing company based in Amsterdam, the
At each turn, Rosenzweig said, despite his objections, the price went
up and the number of scientists to whom it was available went down.
When Rosenzweig quit, to found Evolutionary Ecology Research, his
entire board of editors, came with him. With their backing, Rosenzweig,
who has called the new movement a "slave revolt," said authors had been
supportive of his new journal, submitting high-quality manuscripts.
Rosenzweig, who spent Thanksgiving weekend working on the first issue
of his new journal with his wife, Carole, said the new journal would cost
libraries about one-third of the cost of the Kluwer journal, which is
about to go up to $777 a year.
Peter Katz, a lawyer for Kluwer Academic Publishers, declined to
discuss the journals, saying he did not want to jeopardize discussions
being held between himself and Rosenzweig's lawyers.
Sparc's other efforts include three new journals from the American
Chemical Society and an electronic journal -- a cheaper, quicker form of
publication which some say may be Sparc's best hope -- from the Royal
Society of Chemistry called PhysChemComm.
Selling to libraries for $353, PhysChemComm is intended to compete with
Elsevier's Chemical Physics Letters, which costs more than $8,000.
In explaining their higher prices, commercial publishers say they have
additional costs that scientific societies do not have, including
supporting an international network of offices. They also note that
societies receive additional income from members' dues.
Publishers are also quick to point out that there can be other reasons
for increased prices than merely increasing profits, like increases in the
quality or quantity of articles.
But McCabe said that quite often there was no such explanation. From
1992 to 1996, McCabe said, there was no increase in the quality or
quantity of articles in the journal Brain Research, a publication infamous
among librarians for its high cost -- more than $15,000 year -- yet the
price of the journal nearly doubled.
"How do you explain the price increase, except as taking advantage of
the situation?" McCabe asked.
And while publishers have suggested that currency exchange rates might
explain the rising dollar prices for foreign-produced journals like Brain
Research, McCabe said that fluctuating exchange rates simply did not
explain such spiraling prices.
McCabe said that publishing mergers, however, did result in journal
price increases, as did decreasing circulation. That is, when libraries
drop high-priced journals, publishers often raise the prices of their
other journals even higher in an effort to recover the same revenue from
At the moment, there is no sign of prices flagging, and similar pricing
practices have already begun showing up in the social sciences and
In the meantime, Frazier said Sparc would press on, urging libraries
and scientists to support the new journals. "If we can demonstrate that we
can help the good guys," he said, "then there is hope."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
Department of Chemistry
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0055
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