Crisis in Scholarly Publishing: Executive Summary

Stephen Boyd and Andrew Herkovic

18 May 1999

This note is a summary of discussions of a subcommittee of the Stanford Academic Council Committee on Libraries (C-LIB), consisting of Stephen Boyd (chair), Doug Brutlag, Sam Chiu, Tim Lenoir, Assunta Pisani, and Andrew Herkovic. It was presented to C-LIB on 5/10/99, and to the Faculty Senate on 5/27/99.

The relationship between scholarship and scholarly publication has changed severely and for the worse over the past decade, due to changes in both the market and technology of publication, including an alarming degree of commercialization of scholarly publications and proliferation of increasingly expensive, for-profit journals of unproved value marketed to the scholarly world. This is resulting in a vicious cycle of increasing prices and decreasing distribution, straining (or breaking) library budgets, and leading to cancellations of journals and cuts in other acquisitions, as well as dangerous erosion in confidence in the integrity of peer review. Ultimately, the flow of scholarly communication is at stake, eroding the academic mission.

There are four broad issues of concern in scholarly publication: cost, access, peer review, and archiving:

These issues together constitute the crisis; it is not just a Stanford problem, nor is it the particular concern of a narrow group of fields. It affects us all, in one way or another. Some fields, particularly those that rely heavily on journals for fast-breaking research results, are obviously and directly affected, but even those that rely on other forms of scholarly communication (e.g. monographs) suffer from reallocation of acquisitions funds away from their areas of interest.

The crisis in scholarly publication has been increasingly recognized in recent years by scholars and librarians, nationally and beyond. Many universities are responding with major changes in library acquisition, scholarly copyright, and other policies and practices.

How did we get here?

We (academics) create articles and books, with considerable support from our universities and government agencies, and donate them to publishers. Moreover, we donate other very valuable services such as typesetting, reviewing articles, and editing journals and books. The publisher then adds value by coordinating peer review, printing or web posting, distribution, and marketing. Typically, the publisher requires that the creator cede all copyrights in exchange for this value added.

Technology has very much reduced the value added by publishers: we can now easily generate high quality typesetting and graphics, and disseminate our work globally and quickly. We do most of the reviewing, and much of the typesetting and editing, ourselves. Publishers add brand name; the reputation of a good journal is indeed very valuable.

The same advances in technology allow publishers to start new journals cheaply with economical small-runs, or entirely online; minimal initial investment means minimal risk in starting a journal, whether or not there is a need and without regard to scholarly standards. Due to the hyperinflationary pricing policies of some publishers and the increase in the number of titles (due in part to the diminished cost of production enabled by technology), the subscription basis for established journals is dropping rapidly, and newer journals stand no practical chance of establishing significant distribution. Thus the value added by many publishers is diminishing rapidly, just as their unit prices and aggregate costs are skyrocketing.

However, we (our libraries) continue to purchase publishers' output, often at high cost. Often our own students purchase them back at high cost in the form of course packs. Our colleagues and friends around the world find it increasingly difficult to obtain our published work, as their respective institutions are forced to eliminate subscriptions and trim other acquisitions. The result: at best we strain our own and our friends' library budgets, thus requiring cuts of other journals and monographs; at worst, our precious work will not be effectively disseminated. Either way, we have failed in our basic goal, which is to maximize dissemination of our ideas.

Why do we do this?

How is it that our scholarly efforts harm our institutions and degrade scholarly communication? One culprit is ignorance among academics. All of us know which journals in our field have a good reputation; far fewer of us are aware of the institutional prices of these journals or the policies of their publishers. Even among scholars who are aware of these issues, we find varying degrees of indifference. It is easy to say this is a problem for the library and the provost to address, and it is certainly not a problem any individual can address. More generally, academic reward structures, based on tradition predating the current crisis, exacerbate the problem. Personal career benefits accrue from publications and editorships that in some cases lead to institutional harm. Thus a sound personal decision, for example, to accept the editorship of a new (and costly) journal, can undermine your own and your friends' library budgets, ultimately resulting in a negative impact on the dissemination of knowledge.

Permanence of archival record and access is a looming catastrophe for the scholarly record in two ways. The first is the lack of permanence of electronic formats, such that even well-preserved data (which is rare enough) may not be useable on current hardware and software. The other is that electronic journals (or other resources) may simply disappear. A mechanism for assuring permanent retention and access to electronic resources is urgently needed. Further, as publishers try to move toward a pay-per-use model (an emerging trend of great appeal to the industry), access may be subject to perpetual fees. Under present conditions, the scholar as author is not likely to see any benefit from such fees.

The changes in technology and business outlined above may also lead to erosion of trust in the peer review process. As new, highly specialized, and, frequently, expensive journals proliferate, peer review standards can be relaxed or sidestepped. Proceedings of workshops and invited collections, with minimal peer review, are also proliferating. It is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate the standards of peer review of unfamiliar publications.

What others have proposed

The attached reading list points to a number of approaches and possible solutions to the issues raised above. Solutions proposed range from palliative (e.g., cancellation of duplicate and low-impact journals) to structural ones. At CalTech, for example, it has been proposed to de-couple the certification and dissemination of scholarly communication. Others have suggested a less formal approach: open community-reviewing of scholarly works which are freely available to all. Several university provosts have studied the problem in depth and have come to a basic conclusion: the key to solving the problem is to change copyright practice. They propose that scholars, their universities, or professional societies retain copyright to scholarly works, granting limited licenses to publishers.

What we propose

We offer suggestions at three levels: personal, institutional, and global. On a personal level, we hope to foster awareness of the problems among our colleagues here at Stanford and at other institutions. We urge that scholars license publication of their communications, rather than cede copyright to the publisher. For Stanford, we propose the creation of a copyright management service which would help scholars retain and manage copyrights and negotiate with publishers. Finally, at the global level, we hope to refine and promulgate standards for responsible scholarly publishers (RSP), similar in concept to the Association of Research Libraries' proposed "Partners in Scholarly Communication."

A responsible scholarly publisher is one that serves, rather than exploits, the academic world. In particular, an RSP would adhere to standards of disclosure of peer review practices, fair pricing, academia-friendly copyright policies, and commitment to permanent archiving and access. Adherence to RSP standards would be totally voluntary. We hope that demonstrable compliance with RSP (in the form of some kind of "seal of approval") will acquire significant moral weight and market value. Were the idea to take off, it could go a long way toward correcting current structural problems. Imagine a scholar several years from now pondering where to submit an article. She would prefer an RSP-compliant journal, since her article will more likely be accessible (then and in the future) in the libraries of her colleagues worldwide. What is good for her is now good for her university and academia in general.

The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing: Selected Readings

Manifesto for Responsible Scholarly Publishers

4 August, 1998

There is a crisis in scholarly publishing that demands significant changes in the way communication between scholars is published and managed. The causes of this crisis include commercial trends in publishing, endemic library budget inadequacies, and emerging information technologies. The results include intolerable restrictions on the free dissemination of scholarly communication, erosion in the confidence of peer review, and grave concerns about long-term access to scholarly communications. There is an urgent need to identify publishers whose policies offer solutions to this crisis, and toward that end, there follows a brief list of critical policies that define the "responsible scholarly publisher."

The responsible scholarly publisher supports the integrity and utility of scholarly work by publicly affirming to:

  1. Accept licensing from scholarly authors who retain copyright ownership, granting the publisher rights appropriate to commercial exploitation of the work for an appropriate period of time (e.g. author grants publisher an exclusive license for a certain medium for a certain period of time and non-exclusive rights thereafter, reserving certain rights for the author and the author's institution, society, etc.) In so doing, the publisher recognizes the role both of the individual scholar and that of the institution (as environment, host, and sponsor) in developing the content of the scholarly work
  2. Disclose, publicly and in detail at least annually, the process by which submissions are peer reviewed including number of reviewers per article and number of cycles of review; names of editors-in-chief and panel of reviewers; acceptance and rejection rates based on numbers of articles received, rejected, revised, and pending; and timeliness of publication cycle. Responsible publishers make clear when works are commissioned as opposed to selected via recognized peer-review processes.
  3. Encourage the broad use and dissemination of scholarly materials in principle, and in specific by granting global, unlimited rights of use and copying for most such materials, specifically including journal articles, after a reasonable period to accommodate publishers' legitimate need to recoup costs of publication. That reasonable period may vary among disciplines or among types of publication (e.g., journal articles being significantly different from reference books), but the responsible publisher agrees to waive all fees for use of scholarly materials after a period of not more than [several] years.
  4. Support indefinite continuity of availability of scholarly work. In the case of printed publications, this function is fulfilled by the holdings of the great research collections. In the case of electronic publication, the publisher must agree either to maintain permanent institutional access to back issues, once subscribed, without reference to further subscription or access fees, or to arrange permanent and unrestricted access through recognized academic research institutions The publisher must also make such agreement binding on any subsequent purchasers or acquirers of the publication.

Charter for the Stanford University Copyright Management Service

Draft 18 May 1999

The Stanford University Copyright Management Service exists to protect Stanford authors' ownership of copyrights of scholarly materials. Its mission is to help Stanford authors:

In fulfilling this mission, the principal duties of the Copyright Management Service are to:

Efforts at other universities to change copyright policy appear to have foundered at least in part over faculty concerns about possible burdens the new policies might cause. This shift will indeed create a need to support faculty and others in copyright-related matters, and function is intended to provide that support.

Further, this function is charged with providing a broad level of support to the Stanford community in assisting and advising faculty, staff, and students in the use of copyrighted works owned by others. This function will involve both provision of educational materials (along the lines of the Stanford Fair Use web site and web sites of various university Centers for Copyright Management) and counseling on case-by-case basis.