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Concern is growing across Columbia University Medical Center, including the staff of the medical center library, over the state of scholarly communication and the need for its reform. Is the current model of scholarly publishing meeting the needs of academia? We feel it is not. The pricing models of electronic publishing, the increasing market share of large publishing companies, and the current publishing paradigm are key factors in the failure of the current model. The effects of this failure are being felt across the board — on an international level and close to home, at Columbia University libraries.

Electronic publishing has been a mixed blessing. Who does not like being able to retrieve journal articles right from their desktop? After a few clicks you can print out the article, saving yourself a trip to the library. There are costs, however, for this convenience.

One cost is the inability of the library to maintain a state-of-the-art collection that reflects the most current needs of its research community. The largest publishers, who have been buying up smaller publishers at an alarming rate, offer libraries large, bundled journal packages that include several hundred journal titles at a reduced rate. This is beneficial for the publisher because it can sell smaller, less prestigious journals that may be hard to sell otherwise, bundled with more prestigious journals libraries usually desire. The advantage for the library is that it gets many journals at a lower price. The disadvantage is that the library must pay for many little used titles because they are bundled with those it wants. These large bundles are affectionately called "Big Deal" packages. Libraries often opt for the "Big Deal" because in times of shrinking library budgets, it is the most cost-effective way to provide access to a large number of resources.

When a library signs a "Big Deal" package, the contract is often long-term (five years) and restrictive; for example, the library has little to no room to change the journal titles included in the package (i.e. cancel or add titles). It is important to remember, as well, that many online versions of journals do not include the full content contained in its paper counterpart. For example, advertisements, letters to the editor, comments and sometimes even full articles are left out. These restrictions prohibit libraries from developing collections that appropriately reflect the research needs of its users in a timely and complete fashion. In addition, it leaves in the hands of the publisher the ability to withdraw articles after publication — something impossible to do in paper. This practice has raised serious concerns about how to preserve the record of research.

Another cost is financial. When electronic versions of journals were initially introduced they were often included with the paper version at no additional cost. Now there are a variety of pricing structures, for either subscribing to the paper version, the online version or both formats of a particular journal. Since some bundle contracts do not allow a library to subscribe to paper versions only, the library must subscribe to the online version as well.

The cheapest deal so far offered to libraries is to opt for the e-only versions of journals; dropping the paper version usually carries a 5 percent to 10 percent discount. Choosing this option may be the only choice for some institutions, but the repercussions of not receiving paper copies of journals over long periods of time are yet to be calculated. For example, Columbia recently signed a five-year contract with Reed Elsevier for e-only access to more than 300 journal titles. We will never have the paper versions of these journals on the shelves that cover this time period. Columbia University Libraries currently do not have a contractual archiving agreement with Elsevier for back issues after this contract expires. This means that five years from now, not only won't we have a paper copy, we also may not have electronic access to the journal issues we licensed for that contract period. After the five-year period, if a user wants an article from one of these issues it will have to be obtained through interlibrary loan — if another library still owns the paper version — or purchased directly from the publisher. In either case, cost is unlikely to be offset by the savings in binding and shelving of the paper journals. Users also will pay a cost in time while they wait to receive these articles.

Adding to the financial cost is the high profit margin prices publishers receive from charging institutions for journal licensing agreements. According to the Association of Research Libraries, the cost of journal subscriptions rose 227 percent from 1986 to 2002. The Consumer Price Index rose only 64 percent during this same time period. In 2003, Columbia's subscription to the JAMA suite of journals — including two paper subscriptions to JAMA, one subscription to the rest of the suite, and campus-wide electronic access — cost Columbia roughly $3,700. Effective 2004, this same package costs $18,700. The library budget did not allow for such an outrageous increase in price so it was forced to eliminate the campus-wide electronic access.

For most libraries the amount spent on a large publisher's contract is not proportionate to the number of journals that contract contributes to the library's total number of serials. The medical center contribution to the cost of the recent Reed Elsevier five-year contract is about 25 percent of the medical center library's total serials budget, but the number of journals received through this contract constitutes only 10 percent of our total number of serials. The average price increase for serials is 9 percent to 12 percent per year. With university budgets in such tight constraints, it will be impossible to continue maintaining our serials collection at this rate of price inflation.

How do publishers get away with charging such over-inflated prices? Within the current publishing paradigm, publishers, especially large publishers of science, technology and medicine (STM) journals, are growing increasingly powerful through mergers and acquisitions of smaller publishing companies. This paradigm is made up of three key players: libraries, publishers and scholarly authors. Scholarly authors are dependent on having their work published to acquire tenure and to get their research out to the world. Libraries are dependent on publishers to provide journal access to its faculty and students. Thus publishers are the fulcrum on which authors and libraries balance. The three key players are intrinsically connected. We believe the actions of one affect the others and can be used to bring about change to stop the price inflation and create a more productive model of scholarly publishing. Publishers are starting to respond to the crisis. For example, in an editorial published in the Jan. 21 issue of JAMA, (291:370-371), its publishers announced their intention to offer free access after six months. They also are offering free online access to countries in the developing world via their participation in the World Health Organization's HINARI (Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative) Project.

It will take the collaboration of faculty authors and librarians to bring about change. Libraries and authors can do several things. First, libraries can start saying "no" to publishers who are charging unreasonable prices for journal subscriptions, but the library community needs to be ready to accept the loss of convenient access to these journals. Second, faculty and researchers can start publishing in Open Access journals. In brief, Open Access journals are those that are freely accessible to the public. Some examples are BioMed Central and PLOS (Public Library of Science). Many Open Access journals are peer-reviewed. In addition, academic institutions must reevaluate their current processes for acquiring tenure. Authors publishing in peer reviewed, Open Access journals should be given as much preference — or more — as authors publishing in conventional journals when being considered for tenure. Third, faculty and researchers can take control of their scholarly work. When negotiating with publishers, authors should stipulate that they retain ownership of their article, at the very least, keeping rights to publish their work for teaching purposes and for posting on a personal Web site.

In addition, faculty who are on editorial boards should advocate for lower costs to libraries and choose not to work with and or publish in journals owned by publishers charging over-inflated prices. Faculty authors should become aware of the growing costs of journal licensing and the growing power large STM publishers are attaining. Faculty can share their knowledge of these issues with their peers who may not know about this crisis. Last, faculty can work directly with and support their librarians who conduct negotiations.

It is extremely important that faculty show their support for their library when it is faced with budgetary restrictions and journal cutting decisions. Faculty can work with librarians to initiate and pass Senate resolutions supporting Open Access publishing and library decisions regarding journal contract negotiations much like the ones passed at Harvard, Cornell ( and UC Santa Cruz (

We at the medical center library feel that by working together with our faculty and researchers we can address some of these issues and bring about a more fruitful model of scholarly publishing both locally and globally. We are interested in hearing how you feel about these issues. Contact Kathren at kt364@ or Tracy at For more information on the crisis in scholarly publishing, please visit: We encourage you to learn more.

Kathren Torraca is the Web librarian and Tracy Allen is the head of access services in the Medical Center library's Office of Scholarly Resources.