Academic Research, Scholarly Publishing, and the Serials Crisis

by Moya K. Mason


Scholarly communication and publishing have had a long history, reaching back into Ancient Greece. In the third century B.C., students of Plato regularly sold or rented transcripts of their master's lectures and research. Athenian publishers employed scribes to make copies of intellectuals' work, which they rented or sold. They made more money by conducting readings for paying audiences. The scholars received none of the money. Nearly twenty-five hundred years later not much has changed, with academics and their universities signing away intellectual rights so that publishers can make money from their ideas, and scholars can receive professional exposure. As Battin has said, "At present we (the faculty) generate knowledge, then give it away to the publisher, then buy it back for ourselves at what have become prohibitive prices" (Battin 1984, as seen in John Gilbert's article). Scholars are required to spend approximately 40 percent of their time doing research, and producing important, original work.

This preoccupation with scholarly production and the tension existing between research and teaching has affected scholarly communication and publishing, along with other trends in academic research. Those trends will be the discussion of this paper. In addition, academic librarians are facing new problems trying to maintain their serials collection in the face of an explosion in academic research, budgetary cutbacks, and lack of storage space. How are libraries and their staff coping with these ever-increasing dilemmas, and are there any solutions that can help alleviate the inherent problems for the long-term?

Current Trends in Academic Research

In A Publisher's View, Gordon Graham maintains that American journal publishing really took off in the 1950s, with particular importance given to the social sciences (Graham 1990,43). American universities experienced great intellectual freedom, were wealthier, and many had their own presses (Graham 1990,43). Since then, budgets have been leveled, universities have undergone major downsizing, and sadly, most of the university printing presses have gone the way of the dinosaur. University presses used to be indicative of a university's commitment to intellectual development and promotion, and a sign of greatness; now they are considered a financial burden (Carley 1995,4). An exception in Canada is the University of Toronto Press, with its own bookstore and plant, which certainly helps attract scholars to that institution.

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). This is a direct result of academics being pressured into publishing as much as they can, regardless of quality. One can blame the short-sighted university administrators for their share in the emphasis on high numbers, rather than on high quality, but faculty members also get accustomed to the number's game. There is another aspect of scholarly publication that needs to be brought into the equation and that is the responsibility of referees. Anthony J. Turner writes:

The danger of the enormous growth in the number of articles submitted to journals is that it will lead to cursory refereeing and the benefits of the peer review system will be lost. Referees need to be persuaded to be more rigorous in their judgements in order to maintain the quality of work published. In order to hold down or reduce the number of articles published, work which is sound, but does not report advances in knowledge, must be excluded (Turner 1990,70).

Promotion and tenure committees judge professors' worth by how much and where they publish. It is seen as a necessity for post-secondary institutions to show that their staff can produce a sizable volume of good quality research (Burch 1991,2). Preferably it will be in prestigious journals such as the Journal of Academic Librarianship or Library Quarterly for those teaching in the library science field. There is also the reality that fewer tenure track jobs are being offered in certain disciplines, which increases the competition to prove that quality research can be carried out. How much a professor produces is also a key determining factor in sabbatical leaves (Boden 1990,17; Boyer 1991,134).

Along with university administrators expecting scholarly publications, there is the additional pressure from faculty peers. They demand that everyone contribute to the overall reputation and standing of the department, since the university's financial position and their own are connected to how much important research is being done (Boden 1990,16). There is also the pressure to prove that they have contributed to the intellectual body of knowledge of their field in a meaningful way when going after research money. As Margaret A. Boden points out in Appraisal of Research, scholars can only continue to receive research funds if they regularly produce, but in particular, they must show that the money "produced 'output' in the form of publications of some sort" (Boden 1990,20).

In addition, there has been a trend toward specialization in certain disciplines (Gilbert 1995), which Charles B. Osborn has said is intrinsically related to the technological advancement of knowledge (Osborn 1981,10). What Vannevar Bush described as a 'mountain of research,' "has grown into a chain of mountains with ever increasing academic specialization" (Gilbert 1995). 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). For example, there are many scientific journals that charge $1500 or more for an annual subscription, even though 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).

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 specialty journals are relatively new, and therefore, have not had time to corner a sizeable portion of their individual market, they will subsequently 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 upon price as well (Cummings 1992,xxi). Also significant has been the increase in the number of interdisciplinary areas of study (AUCC), with universities being intrinsically involved in the development of many new disciplines, such as Women's Studies and Bioengineering. Meanwhile, all the standard disciplines are still thriving and producing literature, making it easy to see why "there is an increase in the total body of published knowledge along with a demand for new publication outlets" (AUCC).

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). If professors are expected to publish and 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 must reject a very high rate of the manuscripts they receive (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).

Academics must have their research published, and in a consumer society, demands are always met. As well, publishers are constantly developing new journals, and looking for new customers (Graham 1990,43). This is substantial when considering the research of Derek de Solla Price, who reported that since the early 1700s, the number of scholars in scientific disciplines has doubled every fifteen years (Bennion 1994,25). 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).

These 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. These patterns are exacerbated by the huge 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. Libraries can no longer maintain subscriptions to all the journals that their scholars want to have access to. That is what is at the heart of the dilemma: what to keep and what to cancel. These decisions have major implications for both students and faculty members, particularly in the sciences, but they also affect the budgets for monographs in the humanities and social sciences. It is also problematic for librarians, who have historically operated in the framework of a service industry and felt capable of providing information to everyone. If journal subscriptions are consuming already constrained budgets, then there is an unfair balance in acquisition patterns in research libraries. Historically, the avenue of choice for scholars trying to communicate their research was heavily weighed toward academic journals. As Meadows said in Scholarly Communication and the Serial:

It was accepted that only one person could make a new discovery: any later 're-discoveries' were essentially worthless. Hence, it was essential for the discovery to be announced as widely and quickly as possible, so that others did not step in first ... Journals have acted as a standard mechanism for making priority claims (Meadows 1990,7).

Keeping Pace With the Serials Dilemma: Problems, Implications, and Solutions

Serials have become the central force in the publication of scholarly communication since they are the preferred method for publishing research results and for retrospective scholarly review (Burch 1990,2). Revising the academic reward system that acts as the engine for keeping this 'publish or perish' mentality alive is something that needs to be seriously considered. Some American universities are beginning to understand that quantity does not mean quality, and are restricting the number of publications taken into consideration when reviewing a scholar's value (Gilbert 1995). However, institutionalized methodology is hard to change and it will be sometime before any major headway is made in the area. That means serials are here to stay, and therefore, their inherent problems must be dealt with now rather than ignored. The solutions will require commitment, perseverance, creativity, and public relations.

Scholarly publishing houses are essentially monopolistic organizations in that they are not governed by market forces and have a specialized clientele (AUCC). They are also interested in making profits, thus, libraries can expect to pay high prices for their publications. There is the additional problem of having to manage international currency exchanges because many choice academic journals are published outside North America (AUCC). Duane E. Webster of ARL says that university libraries spend as much as 60 percent of their budgets on foreign materials (Webster 1990,31). The serials budget for the sciences and technology far exceeds the money being spent on monographs for the humanities and social sciences. Libraries need tough administrators to take this problem in hand and make it clear that university libraries will no longer support expensive esoteric publications.

There is the belief that the information age has presented society with too much information, but little true knowledge. Quantity does not represent quality, nor do high prices mean that the library is getting a superior product. It could be indicative that only a handful of libraries or scholars are interested in buying a particular journal, which elevates price. As Colin Campbell points out in The Future of Scholarly Communication, research libraries need to be selective at all times, not just when financial concerns force it to (Campbell 1990,81). There must be a concise collection development policy in place to avoid the necessity of buying everything just in case someone, somewhere, sometime might require it. That mentality is no longer fiscally responsible, nor is it advantageous for a university library to appear as if it collects everything because there is no consensus detailing what it should be acquiring. Every library needs a well-defined mission statement and collection development policy.

The first step is for librarians to sit with faculty members at departmental meetings to find out what journals they consider essential. Librarians must remain current and strive to maintain adequate quantities of research-level collections, remembering that the resources of the library are to support faculty research and teaching. There will always be the core publications critical to a discipline, but problems will undoubtedly arise when speciality items are also seen in that light. An annual review should be undertaken to decide which journals are being used and which should be cancelled. This should provide a dynamistic quality to serials collections by getting rid of the obsolete and bringing in the new. Libraries can no longer continue to carry subscriptions simply because it always has.

This strategy has to be coupled with a highly organized system for sharing resources between universities so that widespread duplication does not occur. A strong interlibrary loan department, staffed with industrious librarians must make sure that follow-up is done. If students and faculty members do not have access to everything they need in-house, there has to be a well-coordinated process for filling collection gaps. In addition, an organized document delivery service is imperative for university libraries who have decided that they can no longer fulfil all possible requests from the in-house collection (Gilbert 1995). Libraries have to learn how to share collections, not duplicate. As Gilbert has said, "the development of a core collection policy, along with the necessary collaborative links with other universities, might enable universities to break free of this crippling economic cycle (Gilbert 1995). In Collections at Risk: Revisiting Serial Cancellations in Academic Libraries, Chrzastowski and Schmidt, caution that if research libraries cancel all the same titles, then libraries will no longer 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: Electronic Journals and the Future of Scholarly Communication

There has been much discussion about electronic journals helping to curb library budgets, and there is clearly merit in working toward a virtual library for journals. Libraries should use technological advances to solve their economic and space problems in the future. 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 also speed up availability while saving the 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 and technologies, since publications in those areas 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 in 1979, 90 percent of research results were known beforehand (Bennion 1994,25). These numbers would likely be higher today with the influence of the Internet on academia. Currently, scholars are using the web and email to track down information and to exchange ideas with colleagues (AUCC).

There are many obstacles that must be overcome before electronic journals become the standard in scholarly communication, with the primary one being the extent to which tenure, pay increases, and faculty reputation are tied to the publication of research in paper-based journals. For any transformation to take place, university administrations must lead the way because academics are not going to submit their articles to electronic journals, peer-reviewed or not, unless they are persuaded by administration that these publications will be considered on par with paper journals. Other problems include copyright issues, lack of advertising revenues, consistency of standards, upgrading of university communication networks, the uncertainty of accompanying costs, and the need to ensure that information cannot be manipulated and changed (Cummings 1992). In spite all of the barriers, something has to be done to insure that scholarly publishing will be around for another twenty- five hundred years. Considering that ARL libraries spent a quarter of a billion dollars on serials for a one year period that should be enough to bring about a cry of outrage and precipitate change. Surely we, as thinking human beings, would prefer that the money be used to explore the vast universe in search of new knowledge, instead of financing a paper trail that leads to the garbage dump.

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