Republished with permission from Lingua Franca, The Review of Academic Life, published in New York.

This article originally appeared in the December/January 1999 issue.

Those librarians who help you decode Dewey's decimals are becoming unlikely warriors at the end of the this decade. They have to. With large publishing conglomerates driving the prices of scholarly journals higher and higher, librarians find themselves spending more and more money to purchase fewer and fewer titles. Their constituencies are concerned. Scanning the stacks, professors moan; brooding over their budgets, the financial officers grumble. It's no wonder, then, that many librarians are asking: Is there a better way? If you don't like the way journals are being published, why not do it yourself?

Even a decade ago, it was clear that journal prices were spiraling out of control. In the spring of 1988, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which is composed of the 121 largest research libraries in North America, commissioned an inquiry into the problem. The 1989 "Report of the ARL Serials Prices Project" looked at four major commercial publishers and found that increases in production costs did not even begin to explain the rising prices of journals. The study concluded that between 1973 and 1987 the publishers' profit margins must have increased by anywhere from 40 to 137 percent. And yet we didn't do anything, says ARL president-elect Kenneth Frazier, director of libraries at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "As members of the academic community, we're good analyzers," he says. "But these were big, smart companies, and we weren't exactly entrepreneurs."

Not surprisingly, the situation has continued to deteriorate. Since 1986, members of the ARL have spent 124 percent more money to purchase seven percent fewer journals. Libraries simply have not been able to retain their purchasing power. Joseph Branin, dean of libraries at SUNY Stony Brook, sums up the consequences of strained budgets: "The result has been massive cancellation of library subscriptions and the steady erosion of new book purchasing."

Now Branin and other knights in shining armor have launched the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). This alliance of research libraries, chaired by ARL's Frazier, will encourage the establishment of new, lower-cost scholarly publications as alternatives to the prohibitively priced commercial journals. SPARC is not a publisher, but its aim is to change the ugly face of publishing. In an effort to create competition in a field dominated by a few multinational corporations, SPARC will facilitate publishing alliances among societies, university presses, smaller commercial publishers or start-ups, and libraries. These days, everyone in the university talks about outsourcing to the private sector. And indeed, scholars, especially those in the natural sciences, have been outsourcing the publication of their research for decades. But now SPARC wants to bring the publication of academic research back to its roots. Call it "in-sourcing."

How does it work? SPARC offers new journals a guaranteed subscription base and, in some cases, start-up capital. The subscribers will include those libraries that belong to SPARC. The funding will help ambitious journal entrepreneurs pay for personnel — managers, lawyers, and editors — and venues where their editorial activities and printing operations will take place. Nonetheless, those entrepreneurs will still have to take care of the pesky details that professors have been gladly handing over to commercial publishers for years: typesetting, proofreading, printing, and — not least — the difficult task of distributing a journal to far-flung libraries around the world.

On the other side of the equation are the libraries. Becoming a SPARC library requires a $5,000 annual fee and a pledge to spend a minimum of $7,500 each year on SPARC publications. Since the average ARL member's annual serials budget is $3.6 million (out of a total $5.5 million materials budget), that commitment is not onerous. So far, a hundred ARL members, including the University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Michigan — plus fourteen non-ARL members — have made the decision to support this innovative publishing venture.

Initially, SPARC will focus on supporting only journals in the hard sciences — where the prices are highest and competition is most needed. A quick look at the numbers explains this situation. Last year's "Periodicals Price Survey," published in Library Journal lists the annual price increases of different disciplines' journal subscriptions. The pricing for the hard and social science journals is the most disturbing. Physics journals, with an average price of $1,495 for a library subscription, increased by 11.41 percent in one year; chemistry increased by 11 percent; math and computer science by 10.04 percent; psychology by 11.43 percent; and economics by 13.7 percent. In the humanities, where raw subscription prices are much lower, prices increased much less — history by 3.88 percent, language and literature by 3.97 percent, and music by 7.57 percent. The ARL's director of scholarly communication, Mary Case, notes, however, that libraries are forced to divert moneys from the humanities to fund the rising costs of the sciences.

Those in the library business are not shy about blaming big corporations for these outrageous numbers. Case says, "Some commercial publishers are controlling more content and raising their prices. It's becoming a dire situation."

On its Web site, the publishing giant Reed Elsevier boasts that its global strategy is to concentrate on "must have" information. In a recent New York Times article, a group of professors and librarians at Purdue University told Reed Elsevier that its "must have" journals had become "can't afford" and "don't need" journals. SPARC chair Frazier concludes, "The commercial publishers have simply lost contact with scholarly and research enterprises. They might as well be selling widgets."

As the world's largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals, Reed Elsevier is at the top of the ARL's list of dangerous companies. This publishing giant's journals arm, Elsevier Science, puts out more than eleven hundred scholarly journals for the sciences and social sciences — ranging from literary theory journals like Poetics and political philosophy journals like History of European Ideas to math, chemistry, computer science, and physics journals. The ARL points out that, before Reed Elsevier took over The Journal of Supercritical Fluids last year, the journal, published by Polymer Research Associates, cost $275 for a yearly subscription. A 1998 Reed Elsevier subscription costs $656. Reed Elsevier has also recently hiked the prices of journals it has owned for years. In 1995 its Brain Research cost a library $10,181 for a year's supply of 129 issues. This year the journal costs $15,203.

The story of conglomerate publishing of scholarly journals begins after World War II, when the Czech-born Robert Maxwell saw that scientific societies were not keeping up with their growing disciplines. Maxwell secured a loan from London's Hambros Bank and published his first scientific journals in 1948. Maxwell, the budding media mogul, supplied what academia was demanding. For while subdisciplines of scholarship were developing, the academic societies were not founding new journals. The journals of Maxwell's Pergamon Press, perfectly specialized for various emerging areas of science, soon became required reading. At the time, academics were happy to work for free when it came to publishing articles in learned journals. It's no wonder that with authors cheerfully signing their rights away, Maxwell quickly made his first fortune. In 1991 he sold Pergamon Press and its four hundred journal titles for & pound;447 million to Holland's Elsevier, a small publisher of technical journals such as Nuclear Engineering and Design. Only months later, Maxwell died — tumbling off his yacht into the Atlantic amid allegations that his mysterious shuffling of billions of dollars was an attempt to hide his financial straits. The future of English-language scientific journal publishing, it seemed, had passed to the Dutch.

In 1993 Elsevier, with more than a thousand English-language titles, merged with Britain's Reed International, a distributor of newspapers, magazines, and consumer books such as Madonna's Sex. Since the merger, the Anglo-Dutch media giant has sold off most of its consumer and newspaper publishing businesses and aggressively acquired data-related properties throughout Europe and North America, including Bowker/Saur, Butterworth's, Shepard's, Lexis-Nexis, and the Congressional Information Service.

All of this consolidation has led to protests. In October 1997, Reed Elsevier announced a plan to merge with rival Dutch publisher Wolters Kluwer, which itself owns Lippincott-Raven and a number of other European companies. A new company, Elsevier Wolters Kluwer, would have created the world's largest publisher of professional and trade journals, with estimated combined 1997 revenues of nearly $9 billion. The European Commission, however, received complaints from academics and competitors who feared that the merger would result in a virtual monopoly on law and media publishing, and it was set to insist that some titles — mostly from the Wolters Kluwer list — be sold off. In a terse March 9 statement, the two companies called off the merger, saying that the conditions the European Commission was likely to impose on the alliance would have "adverse implications" for their shareholders. But Reed Elsevier has other merger options — including reported talks about a large deal with none other than Microsoft. (Reed Elsevier has already signed a $30 million, five-year agreement to use Microsoft's commercial Internet services and its software to support the publisher's products.)

"Of course, there's another, less flattering explanation for the rising cost of journals: price gouging"

One might think that consolidating thousands of journals under one roof would create efficiencies that would keep prices down. But to the distress of librarians, exactly the opposite has happened. To be sure, a fundamental reason why these serials are expensive is that a scholarly journal is selling to a very limited audience. No matter how many potential readers exist, a typical university buys only one copy, then makes that copy available to students and faculty who want it in perpetuity. Even though a given journal may appeal to a hundred thousand readers, it may sell only a thousand copies.

But Karen Hunter, a senior vice president at Elsevier Science, says there are other good reasons for the high prices. She begins to enumerate them with the ease and polish of someone who has done this before. The main reason the price of journals has gone up, she says is that "there is just so much more good literature to publish than ever before." When a journal publishes more articles in each issue, its editorial and production costs rise accordingly. Hunter offers three other reasons for the rise in journal prices. She explains that prices must keep up with inflation, and "you can argue what your inflation rate should be" Also, since Reed Elsevier primarily publishes in Europe, "the exchange rate can increase the cost here in the United States." Last, she says, "We have to build allowances into our prices for cancellations. Cancellations for libraries have become significant in the last five years." In other words, there's a vicious circle: If a library cancels a subscription because a journal is too expensive, the journal will cost more; then other libraries will cancel their subscriptions, which will increase the cost of the journal further.

Of course, there's another, less flattering explanation for the rising cost of journals: price gouging. More often than not, librarians are unwilling to cancel subscriptions to much-needed journals, and so the conglomerates feel free to raise prices with impunity. With captive readers and career-conscious authors eager to offer their work for free, publishers have a great deal of leverage over the market. SUNY's Branin says, "Sure, librarians should stand firm and refuse to buy journals that are overpriced. But that's not so easy. I've gone to academic departments and said, 'Hey, this journal just went up 50 percent and we want to cancel.' They've come back and said, 'We don't care — it's a major journal in our field and you'll have to pay whatever it costs.'"

All of the librarians' frustrations came to a head in May 1997, at the annual meeting of the ARL. Douglas Bennett, who was then the vice president of the American Council of Learned Societies, gave an inspired presentation about potential new models of scholarly publishing. SPARC chair Frazier explains, "Just like with any good conference, the discussion spilled out into the corridors." Frazier began discussing concrete steps that could be taken with ARL members Fred Heath, Texas A & M dean and director of libraries; Margo Crist, University of Massachusetts director of libraries; Carla Stoffle, dean of libraries at the University of Arizona; and Jim Neal, dean of libraries at Johns Hopkins. "We said to each other, 'Let's just do this. Let's just all put money in and be prepared for it to be a huge public failure.' We weren't so sure it would work, but we just really felt we had to do something."

This past July SPARC launched its first project: The organization signed an agreement with the American Chemical Society (ACS), which will work with SPARC to publish three new journals over the next three years. The first issue of the first journal, a bimonthly publication called Organic Letters, is scheduled to appear next July. The projected price is $2,300 per year, compared to this year's $8,000 subscription price for Elsevier's Tetrahedron Letters, against which Organic Letters will compete head-to-head.

Although Organic Letters will be published in both paper and on-line form, Frazier stresses that, ultimately, eliminating paper will create the most compelling and cost-effective products. An electronic journal is SPARC's second initiative. In a collaboration with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), SPARC will, as under the ACS agreement, aid in the creation of three new alternative journals over a three-year period. The first project with the RSC is PhysChemComm, a peer-reviewed electronic journal that competes directly with a commercial title that costs more than $8,000. PhysChemComm costs just $350 per year and its price is expected to rise to about $700 in 2003 as the number of articles increases.

SPARC's third venture involves something else entirely — supporting a journal that used to be with a big publisher. Not long ago Dr. Michael Rosenzweig, the editor in chief of Evolutionary Ecology, was distressed when Wolters Kluwer bought his journal from Chapman & Hall; he feared that Kluwer would raise prices dramatically, alienating readers. So he lit out on his own, founding a publishing company called Evolutionary Ecology Ltd. Before long, he was joined by his editorial board of more than two dozen distinguished scholars. Now he and the board are editing a new journal, Evolutionary Ecology Research. It will sell for $290 a year, compared with $777 for the Wolters Kluwer journal, which is still publishing with new editors. Rosenzweig had not signed a non-compete clause with Wolters Kluwer, a clause included in some journals' contracts that prevents editors from starting another journal. Still, he notes that the legal issues are complex. "The trademark issues are very delicate," he says. He lowers his voice. "I'm not even sure what I can say to you. Let's just say that Wolters Kluwer is not 100 percent happy with Evolutionary Ecology Research."

When Rosenzweig left Wolters Kluwer, he had not heard of SPARC. Now SPARC is helping his new journal get on its feet by aiding with subscriptions to libraries and, possibly, funding. Rosenzweig estimates production costs for the first year to be "well under $100,000." He has raised the money himself and boasts that his company will be a "for-profit publisher offering a cost-based journal subscription rate."

This last model for launching journals may be the most promising. When the editors of an established journal desert their corporate publishers, they can still put their distinguished reputations and publishing experience to good use. Without these editors, a new publication is almost certainly doomed to anonymity and, hence, failure. It's not surprising, then, that Frazier should boast of SPARC's ambitions to take existing journals away from their sponsors.

But leaving your publisher is not always easy. In virtually all cases, the publishing company can prevent editors from taking along a journal's subscription list, its back issues, and — not least — its name. Robert Shirrell, journals manager at the University of Chicago Press — one of the few university presses that publishes hard-science journals — points out that in many cases the most valuable aspect of a journal may be, in fact, its name. After all, the system of academic promotion and tenure supports the status quo by associating prestige with the most well-established titles, not new ones. While Shirrell says it is a worthwhile effort, he predicts that neither of SPARC's two activities — creating new journals and stealing existing ones — is likely to make much of a difference in the long run. "SPARC can create journals, but that is, to say the least, a very long-term proposition," he says. "And stealing journals from conglomerates will be very very difficult."

"The idea of bringing publishing in-house made a lot of folks break out in a rash"

Janet Fisher, the associate director of journals publishing at MIT Press, echoes the point. "We frequently run into journal editors who believe they can move to a new publisher but who, after looking at the contract, see they don't have the power to do that. When editors say to a publisher, 'We don't want to work with you,' it just means they resign as editors. They're not firing the publisher. They can't."

Fisher adds that starting a new journal in today's competitive publishing environment is extremely difficult. "Twenty years ago a journal could reach a thousand libraries in two or three years. Now, the chance of reaching a thousand libraries is absolutely nil. You can't get anywhere close to that. If SPARC gave me $10,000 to start a new journal, it would not come close to what I would lose in my first year, which would be between $50,000 and $100,000."

SPARC chair Frazier concedes it has not been easy to convince people that he can succeed at breaking the hold of the conglomerates and bringing down journals' prices. "People always assumed that we in academic circles couldn't do things as well as the private sector. Universities and libraries had been contracting out everything, and the idea of bringing publishing in-house made a lot of folks break out in a rash."

Still, Frazier hopes that a substantial number of established journal editors will take flight. "I know there are many editors out there dissatisfied with their commercial publisher," he says. "Most of them have long lists of complaints, including pricing policies, treatment of individual subscribers, and the fact that authors can't make use of their own papers in secondary markets." SPARC's Richard Johnson says the organization hopes to attract authors with the offer of granting them somewhat greater control over their work. In the next several months, SPARC and the American Chemical Society are jointly sponsoring a series of focus groups with authors to discuss these issues. "Let me emphasize, however," says Johnson, "that nobody wins if our partners don't have a financially viable enterprise."

SPARC has its work cut out for it. Without the bank accounts of the big commercial publishers, or the prestige of the established journals, SPARC will have to convince scholars that the situation is bad enough to risk change.

But Frazier is nonetheless hopeful. "We can help editorial boards rename and restart their journals," he proclaims. SPARC, he adds, can free editors of the delusions that "they're in involuntary servitude, and that there's nothing they can do about it." Indeed, if Frazier has his way, their emancipation will have just begun.

Mark Rambler is an assistant editor at The American Lawyer magazine. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Newsday, and Lingua Franca. He graduated from Princeton University in 1996 with a B.A. in English. He will be attending law school this coming September. You may contact him by e-mail at

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