Noteworthy and newsworthy

The Bottom Line

ISSN: 0888-045X

Article publication date: 1 September 2004


Fitzsimons, E. (2004), "Noteworthy and newsworthy", The Bottom Line, Vol. 17 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Noteworthy and newsworthy

Noteworthy and newsworthy

Were The Bottom Line to inaugurate a column devoted solely to journal inflation rates and their consequences, no doubt there would be enough material for every issue. From the American Libraries annual surveys to the trials of licensing agreements, the cost of journal subscriptions always makes the news. And the prices, particularly in science, medicine, and technology, are guaranteed to astound – and challenge – librarians. Even prices for library science journals rose on average between 8.2 percent and 10 percent in the period 1997-2002, depending on the survey consulted (Schmidle and Via, 2004).

T. Scott Plutchak, the editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association admits to relying on the shock value of journal prices to introduce discussions of serial budgets:

I recently gave a presentation in which I pointed out that Brain Research was going to cost me some $21,000 this year. There were the usual gasps of astonishment in the audience. I use it for just this effect (Plutchak, 2004).

He went on to say that he would pay the price because it is an essential subscription in his institution.

Of course, not every library is in a position to renew a $21,000 journal subscription. For so many librarians, escalating costs mean that the demands on the budget will force decisions that will not be good for their users. Some institutions address the problem by protesting journals with exorbitant price tags, such as the University of California (UC) system’s boycott of all Cell Press titles, which ended when UC was able to negotiate a renewal of their bundled package with Elsevier at a price lower than that which they had been paying (Albanese, 2004). Others protest the system itself. For example, the Stanford University Faculty Senate approved (with one opposing vote) a resolution that called for the university to cease supporting “publishers who engage in questionable pricing practices” (Delgado, 2004). There were four major points:

  1. 1.

    Faculty and libraries are encouraged to support affordable scholarly journals by volunteering research articles as well as editorial and production support.

  2. 2.

    Libraries are encouraged to refuse bundled subscription plans “that limit the librarian’s traditional responsibility to make collection development decisions on a title-by-title basis in the best interest of the academic community.”

  3. 3.

    Libraries are encouraged to cancel subscriptions to journals if “pricing decisions have made them disproportionately expensive compared to their educational and research value. Special attention should be paid to for-profit journals in general and to those published by Elsevier in particular.”

  4. 4.

    Faculty, and in particular senior faculty, are strongly encouraged “not to contribute articles or editorial or review efforts to publishers and journals that engage in exploitive or exorbitant pricing, and instead look to other and more reasonably-priced vehicles for disseminating their research results” (Stanford Faculty Senate, 2004).

University Librarian Michael Keller’s commentary was:

  • We’re not doing this to position ourselves to negotiate more effectively with Elsevier.

    We’re doing this to change the whole scene. We’re trying to change the fundamental nature of scholarly communication in the journal industry (Delgado, 2004).

This same view of commercial publishing is reflected in the stances of groups such the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which was “built as a constructive response to market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system.” They go on to say, “These dysfunctions have reduced dissemination of scholarship and crippled libraries.” SPARC, a membership organization that was an initiative of the Association for Research Libraries (ARL), exists to promote and support low-cost and not-for-profit academic journals (Association of Research Libraries, 2003).

There is also the ongoing discussion about whether publishers’ prices are “unfair.” Plutchak (2004) has an interesting take on this; he says when we speak of pricing structures as “unfair,” we are using “‘fair’ simply as a substitute for ‘a price that is so low that I am happy to pay it.’” Whether or not the profit-seeking of commercial publishers is “unfair,” “dysfunctional,” or “exploitive,” the fact remains that the ever-rising costs of these publication have, indeed, led to a situation in which academic librarians in particular are hard put to make the choices that they judge to be beneficial to their institutions.

The complaints against journal pricing, and particularly European publishers, are nothing new. Nor are the attempts to encourage publishers to accommodate their customers. What has changed is that the Internet presents realistic alternatives to top-price journals. Ever since it was seen as a possibility, libraries and research institutions have been excited about the concept of free, or open, access. Some see it as the answer; others see a can of worms.

One of the steps toward free – or at least, more affordable – information was taken on March 16 (Freedom of Information Day), when representatives from not-for-profit medical and scientific societies and publishers signed the “Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science,” a commitment to providing free access and broad dissemination of the scientific research (Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science, 2004).

While totally “free” access would require those posting the information to absorb any costs (free information is as available as a free lunch), the supporters of the “Washington DC Principles” believe that, just as the current system compromises the public’s ability to access published research results, an entirely “free” system would hinder the abilities of some researchers to publish their results. Also, timeliness is a factor. Some publishers provide free electronic access to their publications, but only after six months or longer. The not-for-profit publishers who have given their support to the “Washington DC Principles” and have declared themselves ready to cooperate with scholarly communities have made a commitment to “ensure that these communities are sustained, science is advanced, research meets the highest standards, and patient care is enhanced with accurate and timely information” (SPARC, 2004).

One must bear in mind, that programs such as SPARC or the “Washington DC Principles” are intended to reduce production and subscription costs. They do not take into account the cost of hardware, software, space, security measures, and everything else that goes into adequate electronic access. A survey in 2002 found that 28.9 percent of respondents said the Internet had made science resources cheaper, 44.2 percent said it had not, and 17.3 percent were not sure (Lawal, 2002).

Right now, the field experimentation is still the name of the game. However, one thing is clear: researchers, librarians, and some publishers are seriously working with new paradigms of scholarly publishing. What the publishing field will look like is hard to say. This is not only going to be a process to watch carefully, it is going to be exciting.

Eileen FitzsimonsFitzsimons Editorial Consultants, Chicago, Illinois, USA


Albanese, A. (2004), “UC-Elsevier deal stops inflation”, Library Journal, Vol. 128 No. 3, available at:

Association of Research Libraries (2003), “About SPARC”, available at:

Delgado, R. (2004), “Faculty Senate approves resolution regarding pricey journals”, Stanford Report–servicestanfordedu/news/2004/february25/journals-, 25 February, available at:

Lawal, I. (2002), “Science resources: does the Internet make them cheaper, better?”, The Bottom Line, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 116–24

Plutchak, T.S. (2004), “Embracing open access”, Journal of the Medical Library Association, Vol. 92 No. 1, pp. 1–3

Schmidle, D.J. and Via, B.J. (2004), “Physician heal thyself: the library and information science serials crisis”, Portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 167–203

SPARC (2004), “Library and advocacy organizations praise call for free access to science”, SPARC news release, 16 March, available at:

Stanford Faculty Senate (2004), “Faculty Senate minutes February 19 meeting”, Stanford Record, 25 February, available at:

Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science (2004), available at: