The Big Squeeze
Crises in scholarly publishing and library acquisitions put pressure on faculty

By Steve Strange, Associate Professor of Philosophy

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The Library, the University, and Communities of Readers
The changing and unchanging nature of research collections

Steven Enniss, Woodruff Library

Faculty members are already very aware of some of the tremendous changes that have been taking place in academic research libraries over the last decade: for instance, the ubiquity of computers and electronic and online resources such as research databases and the online catalog. Such changes have been a great boon to research, and few of us would eagerly return to the old days before the dominance of information technology.

But other changes, less obvious yet no less revolutionary, threaten to affect not only the way we do our research but, more importantly, the prospects of this research getting published, collected by libraries, and read by our colleagues, not to mention its appearing on our curricula vitae. It is extremely important that professors make ourselves more aware of these disturbing changes, their causes, and some of the efforts that are being made by libraries and that can be made by faculty and administrators to help deal with them.

Research libraries today find themselves in an unsustainable situation with regard to their mission to collect and make available the results of essential research in academic disciplines. For one thing, with more and more titles being published and collected every year, and with an increase in the number of journal titles as well, libraries everywhere are simply running out of room on their shelves for their print collections. The Woodruff Library, for instance, has been forced in the last year to move substantially more little-used materials from the stacks to long-term storage at the Materiel Center, from where it can be fetched upon request (such items, many of which are back issues of journals, are clearly marked in EUCLID).

The problem of shrinking shelf space is only getting worse, and universities simply cannot afford to keep building new library facilities to keep up. But an even more serious problem concerns library acquisitions budgets--the cost of books, journals, and electronic resources is skyrocketing, at a pace that far exceeds the background rate of inflation.

The overall cost of academic journals has increased at a rate of 10 percent per year through the 1990s, in large part because commercial publishers have been able to exploit the market, buying up previously independent academic journals and raising their prices to astronomical levels--thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per year in some areas of the sciences. Since these journals are essential to research, libraries see themselves as having no choice but to pay these exorbitant fees. The irony is that publishers themselves add little value to the journals, since they only provide printing and distribution, with the bulk of the work of producing content, editing, and refereeing all supplied by the very scholars whose university libraries are bankrupting themselves in acquiring the finished products.

Switching to electronic versions of journals is of very little help here: indeed, many publishers now require that libraries, to acquire access to the electronic or online versions of journals, agree to keep subscribing to the printed versions as well. The effect of the increasing cost of journals is of course that libraries are being forced to reduce the number of subscriptions: the General Libraries at Emory began cutting journal subscriptions last year, starting with the (hopefully) little-used, but the proposed 3-percent across-the-board cutback in the university's budget for 2001-2002, combined with increased cost, may mean that many more important subscriptions will have to be eliminated.

Fewer subscriptions means fewer faculty-written articles will be entering the library stacks, and hence the probability of less reward for our research. Essentially the same holds for the publication of scholarly books. Paradoxically, given the explosion of publishing worldwide, major presses in the English-speaking world, including university presses, have cut back substantially on the number of monographs they publish, at the same time raising the prices on the books they do publish, in order to maintain their profit margins. The result is, as many faculty members already are aware, that it is now much harder for us to get our books published, and this has imposed a particular hardship on junior faculty members seeking tenure, especially in fields where the publication of a book with a reputable press is seen as a prerequisite for tenure. But libraries can also afford to buy fewer each year of these more expensive scholarly books, especially given the greatly increasing cost of journals. This does not take into account the huge new costs of acquiring or getting access to the electronic and online resources that scholars now find so useful, which only intensifies the problem.

The crisis in library acquisitions is thus only a sign of larger problems within scholarly publishing, which directly affect working scholars in vital ways, since they affect how we are reviewed and evaluated for promotion or tenure. A number of important things are being done or can be done to help deal with this crisis--some of which may require us to change in crucial ways how we think about our scholarly work and how it is evaluated. Libraries have begun to cooperate in selective and distributive collection of resources, to enhance the use of interlibrary loans, and to bargain collectively with publishers, especially publishers of journals, about pricing. There have already been some successes on this latter front, and we may hope that the days of constant excessive increases in journal prices may be over.

Just last June, the Association of American Universities, the Associ-ation of Research Libraries, and a consortium of university presidents, provosts, and librarians from across the U.S. issued an important document, "Principles for Emerging Systems of Scholarly Publishing" (available at www.arl.org/scomm/ tempe.html), advocating some more radical ideas for change. These include:

(1) Changes in accepted copyright procedures, so that individual faculty members or universities would retain republication and distribution rights to their scholarly work, rather than signing it away to publishers (after perhaps a suitable initial period of publication granted to the publisher). This would allow, for example, archiving research so that it would eventually become freely available to scholars (See the remarks by Provost David Schulenberger of the University of Kansas at www.arl.org/arl/proceedings/133/shulenburger.html.)

(2) The effective separation of publication from review and evaluation of scholarship. As it is, acceptance of an article by a refereed journal or a monograph by a reputable publisher is taken to give the imprimatur of quality to a piece of scholarly work. The proposal would be to set up mechanisms of peer review in different disciplines, perhaps under the auspices of learned societies in each field, which would review and pass judgment upon new scholarly work. Publication and acquisition by libraries of good work could then follow, in cases where wide distribution of the work might be profitable, or it could even be made available online (as in the prepublication archives already in use in some fields). (See the remarks by Provost David E. Phelps of the University of Rochester, www.arl.org/arl/proceedings/ 133/phelps.html.)

(3) Finally, and perhaps most radically, we need to begin to think about evaluating scholarly research in terms of quality instead of quantity. Admittedly it seems easier and simpler to look at the number of articles a person has published in refereed journals, or whether she or he has published a book with a good press, when evaluating her or him for promotion or tenure. Of course, in promotion or tenure cases, confidential letters of evaluation are sought from competent scholars in the person's field, but these are often second-guessed rather than treated as authoritative judgments in areas where we are not competent. In my view it would be much better to see ourselves as evaluating the overall quality of a faculty member as a scholar, his or her real contribution to the search for knowledge, or for truth, beauty, and the good, rather than the number of pages he or she has published. This would make our job harder, no doubt, and we would have to rely more than we currently do on the judgments of the scholar's real peers, the experts in the field in question. But it would also be, I think, more just.

In any case, it is absolutely imperative that major steps be taken to help resolve the current crisis in scholarly publishing and library acquisitions. These ideas and many others for ways of dealing with the unsustainable situation in which we find ourselves are detailed at the Create Change Website, established by the Association of Research Libraries: www.arl.org/create/home.html.

I encourage you to have a look at this site and begin to familiarize yourself with the issues discussed there. This is a problem we all find ourselves in together, and it is imperative that we begin thinking hard about finding ways to get out of it.