Michigan State University

Crisis in Scholarly Communications

The crisis in scholarly communications is characterized by the rising costs of scholarly publications that outpace the growth of library budgets. This is coupled with increasing restrictions on the use and re-use of journal articles and other scholarly publications, including the ability of authors to promote and share their own scholarship. The overall result is reduced access to the published literature.

Interestingly, much of the scholarly publishing system is based on a gift economy. Authors and reviewers provide their work free of charge to publishers in order to support the dissemination and exchange of scholarly research. Still, there are costs involved in producing, publishing, providing access, and preserving the scholarly record. Some feel that the growing commercialization and rising purchase costs to libraries of scholarly publications are unsustainable.

Rising costs for libraries affect what they can purchase

  • Costs of subscriptions: The costs of institutional journal subscriptions for libraries has increased far beyond general inflation and continues to rise (see graph (pdf) from the Association of Research Libraries). This is partly due to electronic publishing (see below). Higher prices mean libraries cannot afford as wide and diverse a collection of journals as previously. Even when prices for individual journals do not rise steeply, the increase in the absolute number of journals published globally makes it impossible for libraries to keep up with new subscriptions.

  • Commercial ownership of scholarly journals: Commercial publishers rather than societies or nonprofit publishers now control a much higher percentage of journals than ever before. Mergers between commercial publishers and takeovers of smaller publishers mean that a few major companies control a majority of scholarly publishing. These publishers are concerned primarily with profit rather than scholarly dissemination. Again, this affects prices for libraries.

  • Electronic publishing has brought new pricing schemes: Bundling of electronic journals is common, so that one must subscribe to a whole package to get access to a journal. Tiered pricing for access based on an institution's FTE, extra charges for remote access, for more than one user, and overall higher costs than for printed material all make it more difficult for libraries to afford electronic journals. Electronic books are a new addition to libraries that also have higher prices than printed materials.

Increasing restrictions on interlibrary loan

  • Libraries have always relied on interlibrary loan to get researchers access to materials that their institution does not have. With electronic journals, publishers have often required libraries to sign licenses that restrict interlibrary loan. With electronic books, only borrowing of single chapters is allowed. Over time these restrictions diminish the ability to make as much scholarship as possible available to researchers.

Increasing restrictions on using electronic materials for classes

  • Publishers often have many more restrictions on use of electronic materials for classes, coursepacks and reserves than they did for more traditional print materials. Ironically, this means that while the electronic environment could make access easier for students, in practice the access is more difficult because of publisher restrictions on creating electronic coursepacks and putting electronic materials on reserve.