Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
April 2, 1999

Journal woes not an ISU-only dilemma

This is the first in a series that examines the sky- rocketing costs of scholarly journals and possible solutions.

by Linda Charles

Libraries are being priced out of the information business, says Olivia Madison, dean of library services. Subscription costs of many scholarly journals have leaped beyond the budgets of the libraries, the number of journals available has ballooned and revenues of the libraries have increased at only modest levels.

Add the Internet, which promises to change the way information soon will be routinely disseminated, and university libraries find they quickly are approaching big trouble, Madison said.

A national crisis over the ability of universities and their libraries to provide an open exchange of information is brewing, fueled by inflation, greed and an international commercial marketplace out of control, Madison said.

The situation is exacerbated by an academic culture that more often seems interested in numbers than quality in its evaluation of academic success, she added.

Rising costs

The crisis that libraries are facing has its roots in the late 1960s. It was a time when U.S. research publication was dominated by scientific societies that published high-quality journals and often provided them free to members and at a modest price to libraries. Academic institutions grew at a phenomenal rate during the 1960s and 1970s. As the size of faculties grew, so did the need for an expanded scholarly communication structure. And as scientific research increased, European researchers began to look for other sources in which to publish.

At the same time, U.S. scientists were growing frustrated with the limited choices of journals, according to Alexander Grimwade, publisher of The Scientist, and former staffer at several commercial publishing companies, including Elsevier and the Macmillan Journals.

European publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer Verlag, jumped into the U.S. scholarly communi-cations market with long-term and aggressive publishing plans. While based in non-English-speaking countries, they and other international publishing houses already had made the decision to publish journals in English. They developed ties with groups of scientists and various European scientific federations, and the result was an explosion of new journals and an expansion of existing journals, Grimwade said in a Feb. 1 article in The Scientist. Large numbers of nonprofit scholarly associations and societies began moving the publishing operations of their prestigious journals to the lucrative commercial sector.

Scientists, many seeking tenure, cared little about where a publishing house was located. Their concern in publishing their findings was the perceived prestige of the publication. The international publishing houses with the high prestige publications began to grow, and as they grew, they swallowed other publishing houses. And each time they bought another publishing house, journal prices usually rose.

As a result of this major shift in academic publishing, academic control of intellectual property largely has been lost to an international publishing arena where profit margins are all that matters, according to Madison.

From 1986 to 1996, the Consumer Price Index rose 44 percent. The price of health care increased 84 percent. The price of monographs (books) rose 62 percent. And the price of scholarly journals increased 148 percent. During that same period, the number of serial titles increased from 103,700 to 165,000, a 63 percent increase.

Struggling to keep up

Research libraries, such as Iowa State's, began to struggle to keep up. Over the last five years, the library's acquisition budget has grown 38.5 percent, not enough to keep up with the 55 percent national and international inflation rate of journals.

An example of the dramatic rise in costs is Lexis-Nexis, an important research tool used in law, journalism and a variety of other areas. From September 1997 to August 1998, Iowa State paid an educational price of $5,400 for access to this resource from two campus work stations.

When Reed-Elsevier purchased Lexis-Nexis, the educational price no longer was available. The new price, hammered out between the publisher and a library consortium, was $30,062 (a price reduction from the official price). This price provides campus-wide access to this tool, but there is no opportunity for the previous type of limited access arrangement at a much lower price.

Iowa State, like libraries across the nation, responded to the dramatic increases by canceling journals. In 1980-81 and again in 1986-87, the library canceled journals to reduce its costs by 10 percent each time. In 1991-92, another round of cancellations reduced costs by 13 percent. And now this year, a fourth cancellation project is under way, with a 14 percent reduction target.

But cancellation projects have proven to be counterproductive, according to Madison. As libraries canceled journals, publishers responded by raising subscription prices as the cost of doing business. The publishers insist that inflation has driven up their prices - - and there is no doubt that mail and paper prices, employee costs and development costs have risen over time. However, the dramatic price increases borne by academic institutions, primarily as journal literature, go far beyond the actual costs and normal inflation, Madison said.

Madison said that commercial fortunes have been made through the distribution of scholarly communication.

"The irony," she said, "is that faculty work extremely hard to produce scholarly knowledge, in many cases paid through state and federal funds, and then routinely give away their intellectual property to their publishers. Then the faculty, through their institutional libraries, have to pay whatever the publisher demands to get back that information."

April 16: A look at the emergence of electronic libraries

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