The entire system of scholarly publishing would be more efficient if journals and bibliographic databases were treated as public goods, that is, if scholarly journals were paid for from public funds. The former locally restrictive character of journals (one had to be near a library to have ready access) can be eliminated with electronic journals delivered via the WWW. Web-delivered content can be as universally available as any public good.
Society would benefit from public financing of scholarly publishing because:
- Published scholarship would be more equitably distributed
- The labor spent on managing serials would be dramatically reduced
- Users of scholarship would save time, and have access to a far broader universe of information
- Authors could have much broader audiences
- Publishers could have predictable income streams
In economic terms, public goods are indivisible, nonrival in consumption, and nonexcludable. Policy decisions could make journals meet all three characteristics of public goods:
- Indivisible (cannot be divided among individuals). Personal subscriptions are clearly divisible, but libraries make publications available to large segments of the public. Interlibrary loan effectively makes articles available to all, albeit at a high marginal cost to the reader (and the library). The high cost in time and effort to receive articles via ILL increases the divisibility of journals, without helping to pay the publishers' costs of production. Consumer costs that do not create producer income are an inefficient burden on society. In contrast, articles posted on the internet are indivisible, unless effort is made to exclude individual access.
- Nonrival in consumption (the use by one individual does not diminish the quantity available to others). A journal article can be read by an unlimited number of people without lessening its value to subsequent readers.
- Nonexcludable (limiting access to nonpaying parties is too costly to be practical). I have been struck by how much discussion on liblicense-l and other forums has been devoted to the means and methods of limiting access to nonpaying parties. What counts as a "party," and what are appropriate means for limiting access? Reasonable minds certainly differ. Licensing, password protection, IP recognition, et al are certainly costly to producers, to libraries, and to our patrons. Are they *too* costly? I think so.
Imagine the benefit to our patrons if the entire panoply of scholarly periodicals, and the requisite indexes, were available from any computer with web access. Remember your last research project? How much easier would it have been if you had desktop access to all the scholarly journals in your field?
As it stands now, no one has convenient access to the full range of scholarly periodicals. Scholarship suffers, and publishers struggle with unpredictable revenue streams. One way to approach this problem is to acquire more funding for libraries. So fund all libraries -- pay for the journals and indexes for all to use.
226.2 HENDERSON RESPONDS TO ALEXANDER
Albert Henderson, Editor, Publishing Research Quarterly, email@example.com
Mr. Adrian Alexander is puzzled that I characterize NIH's E-Biomed proposal as "a government intrusion." I am pleased to explain.
First, let me supply a precedent. E-Biomed is similar to an idea contemplated briefly post-Sputnik, when research communications were blamed for permitting the Soviets to embarrass Western science. That proposal offered to index and analyze all science and technology at government expense (replacing Chemical Abstracts, Engineering Index, etc.). It is described in Science and Technology Act of 1958. Analysis and Summary Prepared by the Staff...Senate Committee on Government Operations on S.3126. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1958. pages 26-27; 178-195)
The idea was quickly disposed of by W. O. Baker et al. in Improving the Availability of Scientific and Technical Information in the United States; Panel Report of the President's Science Advisory Committee. 7 Dec. 1958. It says,
The case for a Government-operated, highly centralized type of center can be no better defended for scientific information services than it could be for automobile agencies, delicatessens, or barber shops.
Just as true today, I believe. Dr. Varmus, take note.
Second, everyone should know that it is against long-standing policy for taxpayers to provide welfare for those who can afford to pay. As a free service, E-Biomed is a "soup kitchen" where none is needed. Worse, it would deliver two "meals" abroad for every one served in the U.S. [National Science Board statistics indicate U.S. authors account for less than 35% of all science articles (and probably readings). (Science & Engineering Indicators)]
Universities have the Money. Mr. Alexander probably would have us believe that colleges and universities have no money. Not true. Higher education institutions can very well afford to spend more on their libraries. University of Chicago, for instance, cut its library by $1.2 million in 1997 while reporting unspent revenues of $130 million to the IRS! (Chronicle of Higher Education xlv, 9 Oct 23, 1998: A39-58; and ARL Statistics) In 1976, colleges and universities spent more on their libraries than their total retained revenue. (Digest of Education Statistics) By 1995, the ratio was reversed. Why not restore the ratio and put knowledge back on top? Where it belongs!
Even publicly-financed institutions collectively show more revenues than expenditures year after year. Unspent revenue may be turned into other assets (loans to officers, investments in shopping centers and the stock market come to mind) or returned to the state. (Ibid.) Why not use the surplus to keep library collections up to date?
Scholarly communication was sabotaged by universities that fail to keep their libraries up to date. The Statistics of the Association of Research Libraries indicate a growth half that of academic R&D between 1970 and 1995. (Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 50:366-379 1999) They also reveal over 400 examples of cuts, where libraries are given less money to spend than the year before. Half the cuts occur in the last decade of 30 years 1968-1997, suggesting an increased parsimony -- inconsistent with the robust economic environment of the last decade.
Manufacturing the Library Crisis. Cuts in library spending force publishers' prices up, requiring publishers to cover fixed costs with fewer orders. Systematic cutting, described above, provokes systematic price rises to keep on top of the trend. Even so, many publishers are forced to catch up with price increases matching unanticipated losses in revenue a year or two after the fact.
I blame university cuts in library spending for skyrocketing journal prices as much as increased research, inflation, and progressive devaluations of the U.S. dollar since the 1970s.
In 1987, all higher education institutions cut $110 million from library spending. (Digest of Education Statistics) No other category of spending suffered any reduction. One result was a four percent increase in profits (profits being the difference between revenues and expenditures). Clearly, there was no financial need to cut library spending!
The trauma of the cut forced publishers to raise their prices. Two years later, the Association of Research Libraries published its Serials Prices Project Report, spouting conclusions justified (but unsupportable) by its spurious anonymous economists' report. It branded publishers profiteers and accused researchers of excessive publishing.
Many decent librarians, publishers, and scientists were fooled by this stratagem into believing some publishers had done something wrong or were bad people. It sparked a considerable flow of abuse of publishers. Many librarians were put out of work. Any librarian who opposed the cuts too vigorously could easily be laid off, of course, as an "economy measure." The financial statistics suggest the library crisis was produced to serve the financial bottom line, in order to justify the continuing history of attacks on copyright and tenure. The "knowledge" bottom line went deep into deficit.
Shaving Quality. I also think E-Biomed would eventually bump up against the Sherman Anti-Trust Act: "Every person who shall monopolize...any part of the trade or commerce...shall be deemed guilty...." Wishing to become the robber barons of science and technology information of the 21st Century, the research universities (which already monopolize sponsored research) seem to think they can insulate their bad acts by using government agents to get rid of well-installed competition. Once the dirty work is done, anything goes. Tenure will be out. The societies will be out. Universities will run accreditation as well as peer review. Research universities are already calling mail order degrees "distance education."
The Failure of Government Control. The government failed to demand that its partners in research live up to their responsibilities. Vannevar Bush's Science - The Endless Frontier was quite clear about the duty of universities, "to conserve the knowledge of the past..."
By not bearing their part of the bargain, universities undermined peer review and the quality of research and education. With the acquiescence of the government, they swindled the taxpayer and the tuition payer, in essence, although most taxpayers have yet to see through the smokescreen of myths and distractions about publishers' prices (forced higher by increased research and fewer library dollars). Knowledge is difficult to measure, after all, except when comparing the growth of libraries to the input and output of academic R&D.
Bogus Arguments. Mr. Alexander leverages half-truths when he complains that researchers hand their work over "at no cost to publisher" for repackaging and sale back to the academy. It has long been recognized that authors' discretion permits them to publish their work where it will serve the goals of dissemination best. Their choices indicate that the broad diversity of readers and authors is clearly served best by a broad diversity of journals and other formats. The lessons of Darwinian biology should have taught us that such diversity is not only natural but serves fundamental goals.
The best dissemination for an author may be a pricey niche journal that is read immediately and well within a specialty. Such journals supplement research papers with editorials that put research reports in context, bibliographies that track scattered reports of interest, reviews, and other advantages. If the specialty is well focused it may be relatively small. If it is small, circulation will probably be small and the price high relative to mainstream science. Most mainstream science is of "marginal" interest to the specialist.
Universities have attempted to influence authors' choices with incomplete studies of publishers' prices. I won't be the first to point out that these studies are not fair since they lack circulation data. They have wasted their time because they compare journals that have little in common in the eyes of an author or a reader (or a publisher). I think that universities would be better off spending their resources on collection development.
It comes as no surprise to many readers here that researchers spend millions of dollars of grant money for subscriptions, presumably to journals canceled by their libraries. (Chronicle of Higher Education. 45,35:A33. May 7, 1999) Unfortunately for other members of the university, such subscriptions are not readily shared. Researchers would prefer to have the university take care of their reading needs. They would prefer to spend direct grant funds on equipment, travel, and human resources, I am sure.
The suggestion that a university is forced to "buy back" its own product is at odds with the facts. The average research university contributes less than one percent of the science and technology literature, in terms of numbers of articles. (Science & Engineering Indicators) If a university wants the >99 per cent of science that it did not produce, sorted and validated, it must pay. The suggestion that the wish of university managers across the country translates into some sort of "we" defies reason. Over one hundred universities compete for grants, students, and faculty. They each maintain separate facilities, personnel, and libraries.
When Mr. Alexander boasts, "those provosts and library administrators are concerned about their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers," I blush for the boldness of his chutzpah.
What is their fiduciary responsibility -- the trust -- if not to produce high quality research and education? The question of trust goes far beyond the handling of money. The taxpayer's trust in universities to serve the priority of knowledge, before the dollar, is at stake. University managers betray that trust when unspent revenues climb at the expense of library collections and services.
Potential for Conflict of Interest. How do science agencies test the quality of proposals and research prepared by universities? They ask the universities to help out with peer review. Is there not a potential for conflict of interest? Not that individual scientists knowingly overlook duplication and error. The quality of peer review is tainted by the bottleneck in formal communications, a bottleneck that serves financial goals at the expense of excellence.
Library spending is controlled by the provosts and library administrators Mr Alexander brags about. Does this management team have motives to prolong research that may actually be second rate? Yes, I would say, the only management goal apparent in today's higher ed institution is positive cash flow. Uninformed research and education simply generates "cost-overruns" for government agencies and students seeking knowledge.
The question of productivity was raised by Leon M. Lederman. (Supplement to Science. Jan. 1991) He pointed out that in the 30 years prior to 1970 basic science generated technologies that have not been matched in the later period. For instance, semiconductors, computers, nuclear power, satellite communications, DNA, antibiotics, automation, lasers, etc. all sprung from pre-1970 science. More recently Newt Gingrich pointed to the incoherence of science as a priority for science policy. (Society. Sept./Oct. 1998: 38-43) A good example of poor productivity is "war on cancer" declared in the 1970s. Research has changed little in the basic approach to treatment -- surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. (J. Horgan. The End of Science. New York: Broadway Books. 1997) Is cancer too complex? Or, have researchers been impeded by the bottleneck in communications?
The appearance of conflict of interest is also rooted in employment practices. Where do science agency managers come from? Where do they go when they finish their watch? The answer is, the universities, which provide them with well-paid jobs before and after government service. This would be ample reason for them to avoid interfering with the financial interests of the universities while they are on the government payroll.
In short, universities' policies of cost containment, which tend to keep researchers in the dark, are clearly out of step with the aims of research and the taxpayers' objectives. In terms of fiduciary responsibility, universities and science agencies have a lot of explaining to do. The statistical and documentary evidence of bad faith is considerable.
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