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Faxon Institute Colloquium

Electronic Publishing and the Scholarly Communication Process

January 7-8, 1998

This evening I am going to talk about a crisis.

In recent years changes in the market for scientific information have created a crisis in the country's universities. University libraries have had to buy more and more serials and pay higher and higher prices for them. The growth of the acquisition budget for serials has driven the monograph almost to extinction, reducing demand and increasing prices for specialized works in many fields. Yet the shift of the acquisition budget toward serials has not solved the problem; libraries have been canceling hundreds of serial subscriptions. Universities can no longer meet their responsibility to provide the information resources needed by their faculty and students.

In the universities, the common response to that crisis has been to blame the publishers and to focus on the way intellectual-property rights are handled in the scholarly arena. As a long-time university administrator, I am supposed to tell you how publishers are destroying the traditional economy and values of the academy.

Let me practice that role a bit.

From the point of view of a university president or provost, the story goes like this: Faculty members win research grants from federal and other funding agencies. Using those grants, they create new knowledge, which they write up in scientific articles. The custom of the university assigns ownership of intellectual property to the faculty member who creates it. So it is perfectly acceptable for the faculty member to give that property to publishers of journals, who edit it, print it, and sell it back to the university.

That system worked well for about 250 years, from the time Sir Edmund Halley (of comet fame) invented the scientific article until about twenty years ago, by which time a significant percentage of the publishing of academic journals had been transferred from university presses and learned societies to commercial publishers. One result of that transfer was that the prices of journal subscriptions began to climb at a hyper-inflationary rate — since 1970 over 11 percent per year for most journals and 13.5 percent per year for scientific, engineering, and medical journals. The publishers have also created new journals at a dizzying pace. In 1991, the Association of Research Libraries estimated that there were 118,500 serials being published — and 70,000 of them had been founded since 1971. The universities and their libraries cannot keep up.

Ownership of Intellectual Property

Many university administrators and librarians believe that the solution to the crisis created by that enormous transformation of the information market lies in the management of intellectual-property rights. If we could get faculty members to hold on to their rights or to grant them to publishers with a specific reservation of the right for academic use, then we could escape from the spiral of price rises that have undermined the whole enterprise of the university. Talk about such solutions has led many university administrations across the country, mine among them, to open a dialogue with their faculties about intellectual-property rights. To say that those discussions have failed to produce any agreement would be a gross understatement. Indeed, the faculty has drawn battle lines, even as administrators have, at least temporarily, waved the white flag.

That's the way people in my position usually tell the story.

I want to step out of character and take a different approach to the problem, not because I have met strong resistance from the faculty to any suggestion that the traditional allocation of intellectual-property rights be changed, but because I believe the focus on rights is misplaced. We are gazing at the symptoms, not the causes, of the problem we face, and we will not resolve the problem until and unless we understand its true nature. It will not surprise you that I think history has something to teach us here. One part of the equation of the present crisis is the university's responsibility for providing the information resources necessary for the work of its faculty and students. That responsibility is one of the original and enduring functions of the university.

"The assignment of the management of the production of textbooks to the university was not based on any fundamental principle but on practical considerations"

The History of Universities

The university was founded eight centuries ago as a guild of teaching masters. The guild was the universitas (the medieval Latin word for corporation); the individual masters did the business of the guild, the making and selling of knowledge. The guild itself had several functions. It created and maintained a monopoly in the knowledge-making business by obtaining privileges from the authorities, principally the ecclesiastical authorities, and by regulating entry into the guild. It managed the competition among the teaching masters of the guild, setting room-rental charges and making other rules. Finally, because the masters fashioned knowledge from standard texts in each discipline — Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis and Gratian's Decretum in law, Peter Lombard's Sententiae in theology, Galen in medicine, Ptolemy in astronomy, and so on — the guild managed the production of those texts for masters and students.

That last activity is the part of the original function of the university that concerns us, because here the institution's responsibility for the information used by faculty and students begins. The basic principle of the medieval university — that the masters were independently responsible for carrying on the business, and the university was responsible only for the bare minimum of functions that enabled and ensured the stability of their business — created a balance of responsibility and authority between the corporation and the masters. The assignment of the management of the production of textbooks to the university was not based on any fundamental principle but on practical considerations. Every master needed assurance that his students were working from the same text, because in the Middle Ages the production of knowledge was founded on the analysis of the meaning of words and phrases in the standard texts. To provide that assurance, the university contracted with the members of the scribners' guild for the production of books in each field, parceling out the quires to various shops, and collecting, checking, and collating the segments to produce a consistent foundation for the work of the masters and their students.

That was the first stage of the university's responsibility for information resources. It lasted until the advent of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century. After that, the universities played little role in providing information resources.

But what about the university library? The foundation of university libraries, which in modern times have been the loci of the university's responsibility for information, came much later. Early universities did not have libraries and only in the fourteenth century, when they built guildhalls, did the universities begin to acquire collections of books. For centuries, those collections grew slowly and haphazardly from the donations of faculty and other benefactors. Then, in the nineteenth century, the redefinition of the idea of the university as an instrument for social progress led to a commitment, on principle, to the notion that the university had an obligation to collect and organize the information that its faculty and students needed for their work.

The nineteenth century was a revolutionary period in the history of higher education. The foundation of the Friedrich-Wilhelm Univeritat in Berlin in 1809, the secularization of the English universities (symbolized by the foundation of the University of London in 1825 and the proposal to admit Dissenters to all English universities in 1834), and the passage of the Morrill Act in this country in 1862 embodied the idea that research and education were useful to society. That idea (anticipated, as so many others were, by Benjamin Franklin) gave the university a secular purpose. In 1740 when he founded the school that became the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin had enunciated the principle that education should contribute to the progress of society.

In a sense, the notion that the university had a worldly purpose was a return to the aims of the medieval university, even though those institutions had been part of the Church, and their faculty and students had at least been in minor clerical orders. Medieval scholars regarded their production of knowledge as practical, and their students — as the masters often rued — were thoroughly career-oriented. But in the late Middle Ages the universities had come to be dominated by residential colleges, and their purpose had been subordinated to the education — the intellectual and social polishing — of the elite classes. The first colleges in the New World were founded to educate the clergy, but they too evolved into finishing schools for the elite.

"Individual faculty members are largely independent entrepreneurs within the corporate structure of the institution"

An Intellectual Revolution

The intellectual revolution of the nineteenth century secularized and reoriented the university. The foundation of the University of London broke the connection to the Church, and Berlin introduced the idea of the research university, but the greatest manifestation of those ideas was the land-grant university in the United States, the product of the Morrill Act. One unobserved consequence of those nineteenth-century movements was that they shifted the weight of the institution's functions from the individual faculty members to the institution itself. While the faculty still carried out the purposes of the university, it was the university as a whole that was responsible for the goals of the governments that founded it. A corollary of that shift of obligation was that the universities became increasingly responsible for the information used by faculty and students in the achievement of those goals.

The transfer of responsibility for information resources was very gradual, in part because individual faculty members remained — and remain today — master craftsmen on the university's shop floor; they are largely independent entrepreneurs within the corporate structure of the institution. As a result, until well into this century they continued to build personal libraries of substantial scholarly worth relative to the resources available in the university library. Many of today's senior faculty members can remember elderly mentors who owned a high proportion of the information they used in their work. But today the universities are expected to acquire and manage nearly all of the information used by their faculties and students. Since World War II, at least, faculty have expected that university libraries would contain everything they need. For the past 50 years libraries have been ranked by size, and universities have been ranked, in part, by the size of their libraries.

The revolution of purposes that took place in higher education during the nineteenth century also made the universities into the principal repositories of human knowledge and civilization. That was not the goal of any of the reformers, but it was the natural result of their intentions. Before the land-grant movement, no institution needed to claim — and none was regarded as being responsible for — ownership of information in all intellectual disciplines. Libraries collected what their owners were interested in or what was given to them. But any institution that would advance knowledge for the good of society would, by implication at least, make contributions across the whole range of disciplines, and its responsibility for information resources would cover all fields. And because the university-building movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was carried out by independent jurisdictions, every university was expected to have all of the culturally important information — i.e., all of the information necessary for the advancement of useful knowledge of every kind. As we shall see, that consequence of the nineteenth-century revolution also has contributed to the dilemmas faced by today's librarians and university administrators.

By all measures, the nineteenth-century revolution in higher education, which paralleled the industrial revolution and the rise of science and technology as a foundation of economic development, has been a great success. The universities have become great factories of knowledge and education, and have contributed immeasurably to prosperity, especially in the developed world.

Problems Accompany Success

That success is the source of another problem. The factory is a place of specialization, and the rise of the research university brought specialization, in the form of the various academic disciplines, back into the academy. The system of education in the medieval universities was based on disciplines — the seven arts, law, medicine, and theology — but in the late Middle Ages the rise of the colleges within the universities reduced the influence of the disciplinary faculties. The disciplines then made a comeback in the seventeenth century, when they became institutionalized in the scientific societies, such as the Royal Society. Those societies, through their scholarly publications, obtained a monopoly on the dissemination of authoritative new knowledge in their fields.

"The information resources of the university are not limited to the library and the network"

The founding of the research university in the nineteenth century reunited the scholarly disciplines with the universities. As many have pointed out, the reappearance of disciplines in the university has not been an unmixed blessing. The disciplines divide the market for information, raising costs and creating challenges of information management. Indeed, the development of information-management systems was a direct response to the establishment of academic disciplines. Moreover, the disciplines do not remain stable.

  • First, they evolve! So literary studies have evolved toward cultural studies; one part of psychology toward cognitive science, another toward neuroscience; and anthropology toward history and sociology, as its traditional objects of study — nonliterate societies — disappear.

  • Second, they combine. Scholars constantly meet in the interstices between disciplines; interdisciplinary research and teaching are all the rage. Neuroscience, cognitive science, cultural studies, environmental studies are all interdisciplinary fields borrowing substantially, but not systematically, from many traditional disciplines.

  • Third, new information technologies create new fields of studies. Bioinformatics, the field that will help us read the human genome when we have found its DNA sequence is only one example. Information science, incorporating the professional studies of librarians, is another.

All of those changes affect the university's ability to meet its responsibility to provide information resources. Transitional disciplines and interdisciplinary programs of research and teaching create and need new kinds and new configurations of information that are not easily contained within the traditional, basically nineteenth-century, organizing systems of modern libraries. Thus it is not only the amount of information that is the problem, but also the organization and management of information.

Finally, the university's investment in information is no longer even close to equaling the budget of the library. The computer center, initially responsible for the technological infrastructure of the sciences and quantitative social sciences, is now part of the information system of the university, creating, giving access to, and acting as a repository for databases. Many universities have created "information czars" to manage the library, the network, and the campus computing system. Yet the information resources of the university are not limited to the library and the network. Individual faculty members, laboratories, and departments all are investing substantial sums on information, creating resources that are essentially private libraries, with no standards for the organization and archiving of data, no strategy for the preservation of data as the technology evolves, and no public access.

Concentrating on the Symptoms

In light of those problems, it seems to me that treating the crisis in the market for information resources as an intellectual-property problem is not very helpful. To do so is to concentrate on the symptoms, not the causes of our situation. It is better to think of the inflationary spiral in the cost of information as a function of a divided market, which also is responsible for the helter-skelter production, acquisition, and management of information.

Since the nineteenth century, the users and buyers of scholarly information have participated in two different exchange systems, buying information from a market economy but using it within a gift-exchange economy. What scholars want is the widest possible dissemination of their discoveries. That desire calls for prices that approach zero.

Meanwhile, the university must deal with the external, commercial market for information. Within the university, there is no economic restraint on the use of information, while there is a strong one on the university's ability to purchase information resources on the open market.

The commercial publishers have exploited that consequence of the nineteenth-century revolution by becoming middlemen in the information-market organization. The universities have not been able to fix the market system, because they have not been able to make a deal directly with their faculties, which continue to carry on the business of making knowledge and teaching the arts of knowledge-making as if they were still members of a medieval guild.

"One way to end the debate over the library's budget might be to allocate to the users the funds for information"

Therefore, the cause of the problem faced by the university is to be found in the way the nineteenth-century revolution in higher education divided the responsibility for the production of knowledge from the authority to carry on the work. For a century, no one noticed the problem, but the consequences of that development are now seen everywhere. How are we going to connect the two parts of that market?

Tenure and Intellectual Property

It is certainly tempting to focus on fixing the unique arrangement of intellectual-property rights as a solution to the fundamental problem of the market. Here is where the system of tenure comes into the discussion. Tenure protects academic freedom, but at a deeper level it represents the counterbalance to the corporate weight that the university gained after the nineteenth-century revolution. In creating the tenure system at the beginning of this century, the faculty successfully argued that its members did the basic work of the university and that they could only do so if their freedom of inquiry and of teaching were protected. The university, with its heavy responsibility to society to produce useful knowledge, could not be permitted to direct or constrain the faculty's ability to pursue Truth, with a capital T.

Faculty members see the university's encroachment on their intellectual-property rights as a threat to their ability, protected by the principle of academic freedom, to control the distribution of the products of their research. If, they argue, the freedom of inquiry is essential to the work of the university, then the freedom to use the results of inquiry, or to dispose of them as one will, must also be protected. That widespread attitude does not hold much promise for an agreement between the faculty and the university on the disposition of intellectual-property rights, not just because faculty members distrust the university, but really because they see the rights as essentially individual.

Houdini would have had trouble escaping from that entanglement, and the situation can cause ordinarily conservative administrators to entertain radical notions. For example, in the electronic environment, faculty members and students have direct access to much of the information they need, and the university is financing that access by providing the network, the connection to the Internet, and budgets that can be used to buy or license information resources.

Recognition of those facts makes one wonder whether in the electronic environment the university should give the majority of responsibility for the acquisition of information resources to faculty and students. One way to end the debate over the library's budget or, more broadly, over institutional expenditures for information might be to allocate to the users the funds for information.

That radical notion is not a practical solution, however, because libraries would once again become haphazard, private enterprises. Nonetheless, we have a system in which — either incidentally or by plan — the responsibility for information has devolved from the institution to the individual faculty members or departments. That has produced chaotic, uneven, and ultimately inadequate information resources for the long-term work of the university and, more important, for the society.

That one might entertain such a radical idea signals the critical nature of the problem faced by universities and their faculties.

Three Practical Strategies

In response, librarians and university administrators have begun to develop three practical strategies. All of them are difficult, two seem unpromising. The first is the consortial purchase and licensing of information resources; the second is the consideration of a new pricing system for information; and the third is the exploration of schemes to change the information market itself.

Shared purchasing of materials has already been developed for printed works, especially among libraries in systems or associations, such as the University of California and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, and it is now being actively explored for electronic resources. That is a useful development, but it is unlikely to be a complete solution. Consortia reduce the market for information, which will very likely engender resistance from publishers and, at least initially, price increases. Resistance has already appeared in the form of package marketing, in which publishers refuse to sell desired journals unless the buyer also purchases other ones.

"The best way to resolve the current crisis in the market may be to replace copyright with contract"

If the answer to the price problem is not to be found in consortia, then what about a different pricing system? Such a system is developing in the electronic environment, where software already exists for tracking the use of resources on the Web. There are many worries associated with that development — including the privacy issues raised when companies or government agencies can track and analyze the way individuals use information — but it is the pricing system based on the software that interests me this evening.

Software pricing is an information-on-demand system based on contract, rather than on copyright. University administrators and librarians have been resisting the changes in copyright law that would eliminate Fair Use and the First Sale doctrines under which educational institutions have been able to use information and libraries able to lend materials. But the best way to resolve the current crisis in the market may be to replace copyright with contract. Universities may be able to carve out a space for their scholastic, gift economies by negotiating for it.

The chance is slim that such a contract system will work, however, because the forces now driving the debate over intellectual-property rights come not from publishers but from entertainment-media giants. We are not in a market that has changed internally; we are in one that has grown into a new form, which we in the universities regard as monstrous.

It is a cliche to say that the electronic revolution has created strange market partners. Businesses of all types find themselves in competition with entities that never before appeared in their markets. The New York Times now refers to McGraw-Hill as a financial-services and information company. In education, the commonly cited example is Motorola University, but many corporations, including media companies such as Time-Warner, Disney, and Dreamworks, have begun to enter the education market. That is not an environment in which one can have much confidence in the ability of universities to negotiate good terms for the use of information.

That brings us to the third approach now being explored by university administrators and librarians — the creation of a new market for scholarly information that preserves the low prices necessary to the successful maintenance of the modern academic enterprise. The new market would be separate from the "edutainment" market now developing, and would remove the middlemen — the commercial publishers — from the academic market. Those features would enable scholars and universities to distribute information among themselves in a system affected by costs instead of profits.

The achievement of that goal requires that universities and learned societies figure out how to compete in the market for scholarly information. It will work by competitive strategy; the shifting of intellectual-property rights from one party to another will be a by-product of the new market relationships. The success of the strategy will rest on harnessing the enormous amount of free service now provided to the system of scholarly communication by faculty members, on taking advantage of the electronic environment, and on finding a way to finance the most expensive part of the publication process, the reviewing and editing of submitted work. The question is: Will the electronic environment provide universities and faculties with a way to accomplish those goals? The Association of American Universities and the Council on Library and Information Resources are trying to answer that question.

The principle underlying their effort is that the process of review and editing, which are the most important added value offered by print journals, can be financed separately from the publication of journals. If that separation is effected, then publication can be done at low cost on the Web. The AAU is looking at the economics of such a system, while the CLIR is studying the technical issues related to preservation of published articles and the maintenance of their authority in the fluid medium of the Internet.

It is too early to say how those efforts will turn out, but we should keep in mind that they are local efforts. That is, they are activities undertaken by university administrators and librarians to fix internal systems.

Looking Forward

I want to conclude with some remarks that look beyond the academy and the system of scholarly communication to the fundamental aims and consequences of the nineteenth-century revolution in higher education.

The universities have a responsibility to provide information for their faculties and students and to preserve the intellectual and cultural heritage of society because of that revolution, a revolution wrought by society and its governments. So what role should government play in repairing the broken information market that has resulted, and that hinders the achievement of the goals government itself has set for universities? In our discussions of what is happening in the information market, we often note that the new technologies, combined with the commercialization of information — symbolized by the Baye-Dole Act but also realized in the control of much of scholarly communication by media conglomerates — have squeezed out the idea that information, at least scholarly information, is a public good. Yet the demands made on universities by government officials, who often treat universities as if they were state agencies created to solve the social and economic problems of society, imply that the materials used by universities in their work — i.e., information — should be treated as public goods. It is time that the makers of public policy stepped into that arena. At the least, we need help in creating an independent market for scholarly communication.



A medieval historian specializing in medieval politics and legal thought, for the past three years Stanley Chodorow was Provost at the University of Pennsylvania. He was responsible for the quality of the academic programs, for research, for student life, and for significant campus institutions including the libraries and the University Museum. He also continued to teach and do research in his field, to which he has now returned full-time.

He began his career at the University of California at San Diego in 1968. When he left UCSD in 1994, he was Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning and Dean of Arts and Humanities. At the University of California at San Diego, Dr. Chodorow won three prizes for excellence in teaching.

He is an expert on medieval law. He has won the Elliott Prize from the Medieval Academy of America and the Best Book Award from the American Historical Association, Pacific Coast Branch.

Dr. Chodorow received his B.A. in Government (1964) and Ph.D. in History (1968) from Cornell University. He has also studied law as a postgraduate fellow at the Boalt Hall School of Law, at the University of California at Berkeley. He has held fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (Bonn), the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Currently, he chairs the boards of the Stephan Kuttner Institute of Medieval Canon Law (Munich, Germany) and of the Council on Library and Information Resources (Washington D.C.).