Faxon Institute Colloquium

Electronic Publishing and the Scholarly Communication Process

January 7-8, 1997

I was shocked and disturbed by a number of trends emerging from the discussions:

  • Unassertive, almost apologetic consumers (librarians, many of them deans and directors) were trying hard to accommodate aggressive, profit-oriented packagers of scholarly products manufactured at America's universities and research institutes.

  • Librarians were planning strategies to cope with the cost increases of sci-tech information in the presence of those packagers (or more appropriately, remanufacturers).

  • Invited guests, the representatives of commercial publishers, were steering the proceedings toward discussions of product improvement rather than appropriate, market-driven pricing. An improved product is still only as good as its price; if it is not affordable it can't be used.

Would academic or public librarians ever be invited to sit in on the strategic planning sessions of large profit-oriented publishers where war plans are being devised to increase profits to shareholders?

Back at work, my colleagues agreed that the situation is bad, but asked, What can we do? We are caught between a rock (commercial publishers) and a hard place (legitimate demands of users), they said.

There is much we can do, locally and nationally. There is a risk in listing our plans in a public and electronic forum such as this, thus giving them away, but I will do so nevertheless (while, like many of my colleagues, keeping a few ideas up my sleeve).

Act Like a True Consumer

It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.

I do not know whom to credit for that quote, but I have lived by that principle for a long time and experienced the benefits. It is time librarians — and the millions of consumers they represent — begin to act their way into a new way of thinking about what it means to produce and distribute the scientific and technological information that is vital to the health and well-being of the nation and of its citizens.

A true consumer looks for a wide variety of products and prices, tries to find vendors who will give special prices or privileges for buying in bulk (they may be intermediaries), demands customization and products manufactured to scale, and responds best when he or she is allowed some involvement in the production, performance, and price of the product. An innovative consumer creates new ways of production if all else fails or fosters competition when criteria are not met.

"Librarians are not yet acting as true consumers"

My contention is that librarians are not yet acting as true consumers. Until we do, we cannot blame predatory publishers for taking advantage of the situation. (Please do not blame The Journal of Electronic Publishing or the organization that employs me for this nastiness — these ideas are my own, not necessarily theirs.)

Acting Our Way Into a New Way of Being

Local actions are possible and available to each librarian. The first, and still foremost, boon of the electronic revolution is that communication is easy, accessible, and almost free.

  • Sample action 1:

    Tell your customers about the scholarly publishing cycle, its crisis, and their role in it. See the excellent analysis by Malcolm Getz, An Economic Perspective on E-publishing in Academia, in a past issue of this journal.

  • Sample action 2:

    Involve customers in the difficult choices libraries have to make, and continually expand the menu of options from which they can make mix-and-match decisions.

  • Sample action 3:

    Create consensus for effective, focused action. For instance, target products from a particular remanufacturer for cancellation, having prepared customers for the difficult consequences, even the possibility of their becoming less competitive in the short term.

  • Sample action 4:

    Pilot a variety of electronic options for sci-tech full text (preferably with joint or innovation funding), and evaluate rigorously, relying on users to give the green light to eventual purchase.

  • Sample action 5:

    Join consortia that really get better prices and that have assertive electronic-licensing negotiation teams.

  • Sample action 6:

    Do not sign a license agreement when a subscription is an option. Subscriptions benefit from all the rights and protection of the existing copyright law and fair-use guidelines; licenses may override them.

  • Sample action 7:

    Learn to take risks collectively and individually. That allows you to speak up and lead in your local (e.g., university) community where information is discussed, and to be assertive as a consumer.

  • Sample action 8:

    Keep informed about the evolving information landscape, get involved, and support colleagues who stick their necks out.

National actions are currently under way involving most of the major players, including consumer organizations such as the American Association of Universities, the American Library Association, the Special Library Association, and others. Libraries have an enormous combined purchasing power, but some underplay and undervalue the role the Association of Research Libraries and other organizations are playing in building understanding and consensus. That results in too many libraries or consortia breaking rank by purchasing products or versions of products that violate the rules of responsible consumerism.

"The best publishing practices should be supported and demonstrated to customers"

  • Sample action 1:

    Libraries should designate responsibility for keeping current with national initiatives and what support they can provide to specific librarians with the authority and autonomy to act on their behalf. A current example is the October, 1997 ARL Discussion Paper on Scholarly Communication and the Need for Collective Action [formerly http://www.arl.org/sparc/discuss.html].

  • Sample action 2:

    That information should regularly be distributed to customers, preferably through annual, on-site, symposia. Those symposia should bring in high-profile speakers who will have credibility with customers (e.g., university faculty) and who do not shrink from the need for courageous action, such as re-engineering the tenure and promotion process at universities as it relates to scholarly publishing.

  • Sample action 3:

    Provide funding from our organizations for national initiatives to develop a new economic model for the communication of scholarly information.

Subversive actions (apologies to Stevan Harnad) are also under way, but not at a rate and magnitude that will prevent commercial re-manufacturers of scholarly products from stopping the leaks in the dikes as they occur. The seminal point here is: how can we speed up that process? More and more tools are becoming available that will allow scholars to produce manuscripts that are immediately Web-ready, needing no intermediary intervention other than peer review. That is already happening voluntarily at universities and other research institutes.

  • Sample action 1:

    Librarians should create a dynamic inventory of editors and editorial-board members and reviewers working out of their organizations.

  • Sample action 2:

    That group should be targeted for special education and current awareness. They should, for instance, know about alternatives such as HighWire Press and Project Muse and how to join them.

  • Sample action 3:

    The best publishing practices, such as the cheap, rapid, and excellent electronic-only journals published by the Association for Computing Machinery should be supported and demonstrated to customers, especially the group identified above.

  • Sample action 4:

    Library-association journals should pioneer new practices in automated peer review and publication-submission technologies, such as processes that will eliminate the need for HTML editing by publishers.

  • Sample action 5:

    Librarians, especially those working in a tenure-track environment, should place emerging national actions on the agenda of local professional and institutional committees (e.g., the faculty senate) for discussion and actions in support thereof. A current example is the AAU's proposal for decoupling certification to streamline scholarly communication.

  • Sample action 6:

    Librarians and their customers should try actively to get journalists to write about the crisis in the popular press. The New York Times article on Monday, December 29, 1997, page C2, about Purdue University Library's courageous response to recent product offerings from profit-making publishers is a stellar example. At my own organization we have been able to get articles in the science and technology section of the major newspaper twice in 1997.

  • Sample action 7:

    State governments should be informed about the impact current and future legislation may have on their ability to purchase competitive information for their citizens, as well as how taxpayers' money is spent to create scholarly information that is then given away to republishers at low or no cost, to be sold back to them at inflated prices. How do we know those prices are inflated, other than the annual price increases? Commercial publishers make profits or they would not have shareholders and be able to merge or take over other companies at enormous cost, nor would they be able to post increased earnings every year. One company increased its profits by 28% in 1996.

"This is not the language of boycott, rather that of informed consent"

A personal goal for 1998 crystallized for me at the Faxon Colloquium. I hope to mobilize colleagues in scientific, technological, and medical libraries in my region to form a consensus-building group. Together we can build consensus on which electronic products, versions of products, services, types of subscriptions, and types of licenses best meet our needs and budgets. That would have the added benefit of making our decisions more credible with internal customers, while preventing any of us from making bad, precedent-setting electronic purchases. This is not the language of boycott, rather that of informed consent; of taking up the battle cry for the continued march of science, while others would slow it or only make it available to those who can afford to pay inflated prices.

An assistant professor and the Director of the Centennial Science and Engineering Library at the University of New Mexico, Johann van Reenen is also the current Chair of the Library Services Alliance of New Mexico, a group of national-laboratory and university science and technology libraries. His current interests include consortial licensing and electronic publishing. Since the mid-1990s he has been teaching workshops on risk taking and decision making in the electronic environment at library conferences. He has recently been named the UNM Director of the Library Linkages Project of ISTEC (IberoAmerican Science and Technology Education Consortium), headquartered at UNM. Web Page: http://www.istec.org/about/contact.html