Journals rebellion in need of support

June 29, 2001

Librarians and scholars who have been setting up non-commercial alternatives to high-priced journals say more academics need to join the fight to achieve a more balanced marketplace.

In recent years, groups of academics have set up alternative journals to compete with high-priced commercial publications.

But rebels such as Michael Rosenzweig, who, along with his editorial board, walked away from the journal Evolutionary Ecology in 1998, say that more people joining the fight will send an important message to publishers.

"If they lose editors and writers, they will begin to see the lower market value of raising prices," the University of Arizona professor said. Professor Rosenzweig has been successfully editing the eight-issue-a-year Evolutionary Ecology Research , while arguing with former publisher Wolters Kluwer.

Professor Rosenzweig's new journal was the first member of Sparc, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which distributes science journals to 180 libraries and library organisations in four continents. The Washington-based organisation wants to stop the decline in journal publishing and the continual rise in prices.

According to Sparc, figures from 120 of the largest research libraries in North America show the average price of an academic journal went up by 207 per cent between 1986 and 1999. During that period, the libraries reduced book purchases by 26 per cent.

Sparc recently began a network called BioOne, which will publish 40 journals online. Half of the revenue will flow back to the journals, while the other half will go to expand BioOne. Sparc Europe expects to launch in early 2002, while its American counterpart has been making overtures in Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Alternatives to commercial publishers are out there, such as the non-profit support provided by Johns Hopkins University. Deborah Dancik, former associate director of libraries at the University of Alberta, moved her journal to the university after her publisher announced it would double the price. She said it was time for academics to "take back their journals".

Other journals published through academic libraries include the University of Arizona's Journal of Insect Science .

US Sparc's enterprise director, Rick Johnson, said: "The big dirty secret is that the process does not take a huge capital investment. The raw material is created by the scholar. Peer review is free by members of the academic community. The public provides the infrastructure."

But Eric A. Swanson, vice-president of science, technology and medical publications at John Wiley & Sons, said libraries and commercial publishers can come to a better understanding, rather than being subjected to Sparc's "aggressive" campaign.

He pointed to a number of consortia such as among Canada's academic libraries, which have been able to pool funds and offer every member, rather than a select few, numerous publications, while the publishers still receive the same amount of revenue.

"It's not a dramatic story where the wicked publisher terrorises innocent librarians," Mr Swanson said.

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