Last Updated: 2004 August 9

Scholarly Societies Project

The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing

What is the Crisis?

In the last couple of decades, the subscription costs of many scholarly journals (especially those published by certain powerful commercial publishers) have escalated at a rate far exceeding the cost-of-living rate of inflation. In addition, many new journals have been started.

These two factors have conspired to change the nature of journal collections in academic libraries. Although it once was possible for a large academic library to aim to have a comprehensive collection of journals for the subject departments that it served, this is no longer the case. Even large academic libraries must now be fairly selective in the subscriptions that they renew. Furthermore, most academic libraries have had to carry out extensive journal-cancellation projects in the last few years.

These and related matters are discussed in the electronic Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, an archive of which is located at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The archive is available in a WWW version for the period from No. 1 (February 27, 1989) to the present.

Much useful material is also found at the website of the Office of Scholarly Communication of the Association of Research Libraries. See also the excellent article by Richard K. Johnson entitled A Question of Access: SPARC, BioOne, and Society-Driven Electronic Publishing in the May 2000 issue of D-LibMagazine.


Scholarly Societies as Publishers vis-a-vis Commercial Publishers

As a rule, journals published by commercial publishers are more expensive than those published by scholarly societies, unless, of course, the scholarly society has delegated the publication of a journal to a commercial publisher. The following articles include information verifying this claim:

In some disciplines, the bulk of the heavily used and cited journals are published by one or more scholarly society. In such cases, the journal subscription costs are more moderate than they are in less fortunate disciplines, and the inflation rates in subscription costs are also more moderate. In fact, some writers have advocated that societies expand their journal publications programs to provide more reasonably-priced alternatives to commercially published journals. The following references support this point of view:


What Can Scholarly Societies Do? [An Editorial]

This section is more in the nature of an editorial, since it is informed by a quite definite point of view.

The crisis in scholarly publishing has had a devastating effect on academic libraries in recent years, and will ultimately make it more difficult for scholars to carry out their research. In our opinion, here are some ways in which scholarly societies can help alleviate this situation:

  1. Scholarly societies can encourage their members to refrain from publishing in, or sitting on editorial boards of, journals with exorbitant pricing policies.

  2. Scholarly societies can strive to publish their journals themselves, rather than delegate them to commercial publishers. In the last couple of decades, this sort of delegation has become rather commonplace. The following articles comment upon this situation:

  3. Scholarly societies can attempt to reduce their journal publication costs by exploring the possibility of electronic submission of manuscripts and electronic distribution of journal issues to their subscribers.

Many of these same points are made in an article by Peggy Johnson entitled A Crisis in Scholarly Publication: What You Can Do [link to issue 18, 1990 March 7 of Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues; see article 18.5]

No one knows what the future holds for scholarly publishing, but scholarly societies are in a strong position to help influence the direction of this future.

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Jim Parrott
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