March 19, 1998 * Vol . 11, No. 6

Publish and perish?

It's time to stop greedy publishers from cashing in on academic journals, says SFU publishing expert

by Howard Fluxgold

University libraries across the country are being strangled by the ever- increasing costs of buying academic journals, but the days of fat profits for rich publishers may be numbered.

"In the last 10 years the price of medical, scientific and technical journals has risen 147 per cent on a per unit basis," says Dr. Rowland Lorimer, director of the master of publishing program at SFU. "The research library community has been ringing the alarm bells for a number of years."

Now, following the recommendations of a 1997 policy conference at SFU called Scholarly Communication in the Next Millennium, the Canadian centre for studies in publishing has joined the fray. The SFU centre is mounting a campaign to raise the awareness of academics to the real cost of journals.

"The essential problem is that over the last 50 years a small number of extremely large firms has arisen in scientific, technical and medical publishing," Lorimer explains. "They've transformed themselves from service providers to the scholarly community to aggressive profit seekers."

The problem is exacerbated by the value academics place on a permanent, accessible record of scientific, technical and, what Lorimer calls, "need-to-know" information. As well, a few large publishers hold a monopoly as disseminators of research because scholars persist in publishing in for-profit journals.

Lorimer says that the policies adopted by the publishers have resulted in ever-increasing journal prices at a huge cost to the public sector. "A favorite tactic is passing on the increased prices of paper and labor," he says. Another is the publishing of conference proceedings followed, at times, by re-publication of more formal papers by the same author on the same topic.

Publishers also play the currency markets. 'For example, when the dollar increases its value relative to the currency of the country in which the publisher operates, prices either do not decrease, or are slow to do so," says Lorimer. "However, when the dollar declines, prices are quick to increase."

Following the resolutions of last year's scholarly communication conference, Lorimer has sought ways to encourage academics, administrators and students to stop the profiteering. Working with the centre's Valerie Frith and Ron Woodward, he has created a poster and brochure entitled Publish And Perish?, outlining what those in academia can do to help solve the problem.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, Canadian Association of Research Libraries and its U.S. counterpart, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), have all agreed to distribute the material to their members. And they're encouraging them to purchase additional copies to distribute on campuses throughout North America. "The ARL will be sending copies to both their members and all the major scholarly organizations in the U.S.," Lorimer notes.

The brochure provides tips on how to fight greedy publishers. For example, it suggests professors publish through university presses and publishers with reasonable pricing. (Some journals can cost more than $11,000 annually.) It also asks them to refrain from reviewing or sitting on editorial boards of high-priced, for-profit journals.

It suggests administrators move beyond publish-or-perish policies and assess the full contributions of scholars to society. And it asks students to urge the establishment of tenure and promotion guidelines that evaluate the quality, not the quantity of publications, as well as teaching and other contributions to knowledge.

Lorimer says that while new technologies appear on the surface to be a solution to the problem, electronic publishing and the Internet have, so far, not been the answer. Many of the large publishers have entered the field of electronic publishing and are now trying to expand their markets by offering additional journals to university libraries at discounted prices. The scholarly community has also embraced electronic publishing on the Internet, however, it has made no concerted effort to compete with the established private sector firms.

There is an additional difficulty in establishing new, scholar-run, electronic journals. "Because there are no effective barriers to entry for these new journals, there's no instant credibility either," Lorimer says. Tenure review committees and promotion committees view them with suspicion.

Lorimer says that the brochure and poster are an attempt to bring the problem to the attention of academe. "The level of awareness in the academic community of the costs to institutions of publishing in prestigious, privately owned, high-cost journals is limited. Academics have no reason to be aware of how much it costs to subscribe," he says.

He adds that some professors will publish as many as 10 articles based on one experiment to pad their curriculum vitae, forcing libraries to purchase a much wider range of journals than would be the case if the work was consolidated into one article.

"We understand that new professors need to publish to get ahead. That is why we are calling for leadership to be taken by senior scholars and the universities themselves," he explains.

Lorimer says the problem in the social science and humanities field is minimal. But he wants the academic community to pressure the publishers of science, medical and technical journals to prevent them from jacking up prices indiscriminately.

As Lorimer points out, there is an irony to it all. He says: "The scholarly community could take over scholarly publishing altogether and put greedy publishers out of business tomorrow. The net saving to the public sector in North America would probably reach $1 billion."

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