Document Delivery: Panacea for the Crisis in Science Serials?

by Moya K. Mason

Introduction: Academic Research Trends

In the face of an explosion in academic research, an increase in journal subscriptions, exchange rate fluctuations, budgetary cutbacks, and lack of storage space, academic librarians are facing problems trying to maintain their serials collections. An interesting academic trend of the 20th century has been to use the academic journal "as a medium for priority claiming, quality control, and archiving of scientific work ... not as a medium for rapid communication of research results" (Bennion 1994,25). Overall, academic research and scholarly publication have exploded in the last two decades, with more than 140, 000 journals being published each year (Gilbert 1995). For example, more than $250,000,000 was spent on serials in ARL libraries in 1988/89, which is equivalent to the budget spent by NASA to undertake a major planetary exploration (Webster 1990,131).

If professors are expected to publish, and since there are only so many articles that can fill a journal and so much competition to get articles accepted for publication, it forces new publications to crop up on a continual basis. For instance, highly respected journals like Science and Nature reject a large number of the manuscripts they receive each year (Dancik 1990,93). Studies show that 80-90% of social science submissions, and 20-60% of biological articles are rejected, but most of these will eventually be published somewhere else (Dancik 1990,93). To put this into perspective, it has been estimated that in the field of mathematics alone, one million papers have been published to date, half of which appeared in the last ten years (AUCC 1996).

The trend seems to be an increase in highly specialized journals that have low circulation rates, with the numbers continuing to grow (Gilbert 1995). Since some of the specialty science journals are relatively new, and have not had time to corner a sizeable portion of their market niche, they will be more expensive to buy (Cummings 1992,xxi). In addition, a very small number of publishing houses are producing science journals, which has an impact on price as well (Cummings 1992,xxi). The increase in the number of interdisciplinary areas of study has also been significant (AUCC 1996). Universities are intrinsically involved in the development of many new disciplines, such as Biometrics, Nanorobotics, and Bioengineering. Meanwhile, all the standard disciplines are still thriving and producing literature, making it easy to see why there has been an increase in the total body of published academic information, along with a demand for new publication outlets (AUCC 1996). Moreover, these new scholarly fields are being published in thousands of highly specialized journals that cannot support themselves unless they charge extremely high prices (Bennion 1994,25). Many scientific journals charge thousands of dollars for an annual subscription, although studies have shown that less than one percent of all science journals will ever be read (Gilbert 1995). Scientific and technological journals are often published by commercial organizations, rather than university presses or research institutions, which makes them automatically more expensive (Cummings 1992,94).

Is the Future Document Delivery?

Recent trends in academic research have caused an explosion in the amount of scholarly information published, which has serious and complex implications for libraries and university budgets. Large funding cuts leveled against post-secondary institutions, inflation, increases in the price of academic publications, problems with space, the costs of binding, and exchange rates have exacerbated the problem. Libraries can no longer maintain subscriptions to all the journals their scholars and students want access to. The heart of the dilemma is what to keep, and what to cancel. These decisions have major implications for both students and faculty members, particularly in the sciences, but also affect the budgets for monographs in the humanities and social sciences. Serial budgets for the sciences and technology far exceeds the money spent on books for the humanities and social sciences. This is also problematic since librarians have historically operated in the framework of a service industry, and felt capable of providing information for everyone. If journal subscriptions are consuming already constrained budgets, acquisition patterns in research libraries are inequitable. How are libraries and their staff coping with this ever-increasing dilemma, and are there any solutions that can help alleviate the inherent problems for the long-term?

Libraries need tough administrators to take this problem in hand and make it clear that university libraries will not support expensive esoteric publications. Libraries can no longer continue to carry subscriptions simply because it always has. An annual review should be undertaken to find out which journals are being used, and decide which need to be canceled. This should maintain dynamism in the serials collection by getting rid of the unused and obsolete, while bringing in new ideas. This strategy should be coupled with a highly organized system of document delivery. If students and faculty members don't have access to everything they need in-house, a well-coordinated process for filling collection gaps is essential. An organized document delivery service is important for university libraries that have decided not to collect everything (Gilbert 1995). As Gardener writes in Library Collections: Their Origin, Selection, and Development:

No library exists today in isolation from others. At one time, some librarians thought it was possible to build self-sufficient collections that would serve the needs of their users . . . Today most librarians realize that with the explosion in knowledge and in publication that has occurred in the twentieth century, it is impossible for any library to satisfy its users completely. Some form of cooperation is necessary between libraries of differing types and sizes (Gardener 1981,190).

Document delivery is simply a supplement to interlibrary loan for journals. The difference is that besides obtaining materials from other libraries, they can be purchased from commercial vendors, as well. In the sciences, one of the most valuable organizations for the dissemination of information is Canada's own CISTI, a division of the National Research Council of Canada. CISTI has an excellent document delivery system for theses, conference proceedings, technical reports, journals, and grey literature in many different languages (Hurst 1991,22). It has one of the largest document delivery systems in North America, and is one of the most important purveyors of its kind in the world, receiving thousands of requests per day. Many academic libraries are beginning to revolt against escalating journal prices, and prefer to offer students and faculty members a subsidized rate for getting a copy of a journal article from another university or vendor, rather than continuing to pay for very specialized journals which are read by few people, and which can cost as much as seven thousand dollars a year. The challenge for document delivery departments is to ensure quick turnaround times, and to keep the price of the service reasonable. Students are already paying higher tuition fees, so if they are also expected to pay for expensive document delivery services, it will be a problem. Document delivery and resource sharing between nearby universities can work, when there is a quick turnaround time to lessen the inconvenience for students and faculty.

The use of document delivery will continue to grow as more libraries realize they can't continue to pay huge prices for certain journals. More commercial vendors are competing for the chance to supply libraries with documents, and are offering better and quicker service. The downside is that we lose the opportunity to serpendititiously roam the stacks for articles as libraries continue to cancel more and more journals and opt for document delivery instead. That's why it's important for librarians to make sure they are not cancelling too many journals from one discipline. The development of a core collection policy and the collaboration with other universities will help universities break free of economic tyranny, but there is one thing to keep in mind. In Collections at Risk: Revisiting Serial Cancellations in Academic Libraries, Chrzastowski and Schmidt caution that if all research libraries cancel the same titles, then none will carry the more esoteric publications that give them some individuality, nor will they have any reason to borrow from other institutions (Chrzastowski 1996,363-364).

Conclusion: What About Electronic Journals?

There has been much discussion about using electronic journals to help curb library budgets, and there may be merit in working towards a virtual library for science journals. Libraries will continue to take advantage of technological advances to solve their economic and space problems. In A Perspective on the Politics of Change from the United States, Webster unveils a revolutionary outlook:

In the future, we envision electronic databases which will list available articles via a standard article number. Faculty and students will then, with a single key stroke, be able to order an electronic article to be delivered quickly to their workstations to be printed, stored, and accessed at will. Publishers could be compensated for use of their databases. This process would eliminate the cost of printing, storage, [binding], and delivery. Libraries will no longer need to store unused journals, and readers will have access to a world of knowledge instead of just the materials held in their local library (Webster 1990,132).

The digitization of information can speed up availability while saving on printing and shipping costs, and offers the convenience of not having to rush to the library every time an item is needed (Wills). Electronic journals may prove to be the panacea for all disciplines, but, in particular, the sciences, since publications in that area tend to be quickly dated, and are used more for "priority claiming, quality control, and archiving" (Bennion 1994,25). In addition, scientists use informal channels to circulate their findings long before publication takes place, with estimates that as far back as 1979, 90 percent of research results were known beforehand (Bennion 1994,25). The numbers are higher today with researchers and scholars using the web and email to track down information and to exchange ideas with colleagues.

Many obstacles need to be overcome before electronic journals become the standard in scholarly communication. Primarily, the extent to which tenure, salary increases, and faculty reputations are based on academics having their research published in print journals should be considered. For any transformation to take place, university administrations must lead the way. Academics are not going to submit their articles to electronic journals, peer-reviewed or not, unless they are assured that the publications will be considered on par with paper journals. Other problems include copyright issues, lack of advertising revenue, consistency of standards, upgrading of university networks, the uncertainty of accompanying costs, and the possibility that information could be manipulated and changed (Cummings 1992).

Overall, we must stay focused on what we are actually doing to the collections when we cancel so many print publications. As libraries continue to access needed materials from outside their institutions, they will have to allocate more staff to handle the requests and act as liaisons between vendors and service providers, if they want things to run smoothly. Document delivery will help alleviate some of the problems associated with the crisis in science serials, but nothing short of a complete overhaul of the scientific and technological disciplines will provide any long-term solutions. That's not going to happen any time soon.

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Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. 1996. The Changing World of Scholarly Communication: Final Report of the AUCC-CARL/ABRC Task Force on Academic Libraries and Scholarly Communication, November 1996.

Bennion, Bruce. 1994. Why the Science Journal Crisis? Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 20 (Feb./Mar.), pp. 25-6.

Chrzastowski, Tina and K. Schmidt. 1996. Collections at Risk: Revisiting Serial Cancellations in Academic Libraries. College & Research Libraries, Vol. 57, No. 7, pp. 351-64.

Cummings, Anthony, et al. 1992. University Libraries and Scholarly Communication: A Study Prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries.

Dancik, Bruce P. 1991. The Importance of Peer Review. Pp. 91-94 in Patricia Ohl Rice and Jane A. Robillard (eds.) The Future of Serials: Proceedings of the North American Serials Interest Group, Inc. New York: The Haworth Press.

Gardener, Richard K. 1981. Library Collections: Their Origin, Selection, and Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gilbert, John. 1995. Report of the Serials and Technology Subcommittee.

Hurst, Brenda. 1991. CISTI: Meeting the Needs of the Canadian Scientific and Technical Community. Pp. 19-26 in Patricia Ohl Rice and Jane A. Robillard (eds.) The Future of Serials: Proceedings of the North American Serials Interest Group, Inc. New York: The Haworth Press.

Webster, Duane E. 1990. A Perspective on the Politics of Change From the United States. Pp. 129-137 in Karen Brookfield (ed.) Scholarly Communication and Serials Prices. London: Bowker-Saur.

Wills, Mathew and Gordon Wills. 1996. The Ins and the Outs of Electronic Publishing. Internet Research, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 10-21.

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