vol. 18 no. 3, September, 2013

Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen, Denmark, 19-22 August, 2013

Short papers

Scholarly communication's problems: an analysis

John M. Budd
School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri. 303 Townsend Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, USA.

Introduction. This paper explores scholarly communication by means of the complex political economy of commercial publishers, emerging modes of dissemination, and self-interested parties.
Method. This is primarily a review of background forces that have influenced scholarly communication for many years. It adds examination of the participants in production and decision making, including academic administrators.
Analysis. The paper explores production and dissemination of dominant and emergent models of communication, with attention to the political economic elements of choice and coercion in the communication processes.
Conclusions. Conversations have included media, pricing, ownership, technological development, and other features of the system. While these are somewhat legitimate concerns, they miss the fundamental political point of the political economy of production and consumption. In other words the entire problem should be examined from this standpoint. It is from that view that a clear picture that the challenges emerge.


Is the difficulty with scholarly communication intractable? The answer is no, but reaching that answer requires substantial analysis of causes and effects; the causes and effects are, to a considerable extent, political. The foundations of the problem will be the focus here. We can begin with a hint of an answer: the dilemma is not new; it has been developing over time and by means of various means, influences and choices; and it is not insoluble. First, libraries have been experiencing financial pressures for the last several decades, especially trying to pay for serials and databases—writ large, to encompass aggregators' and publishers' digital access, among other things. The financial challenges have not eased, even as several efforts have had some success at providing information at more reasonable rates. Open Access may one of the most notable and obvious successes, but institutional repositories are also expanding at a relatively brisk rate. Even with the progress, there is still concern about the future pricing and control of serials and other informational items. A component of the concern is the expansion of publications and other informational items; more is produced each year, so access must be provided each year. This is part of the cause. These kinds of challenges remain the sources of concern and are constantly discussed in a variety of forums. In fact, it could be said that the crux of the problem is one of stasis (causes and effects not changing substantively), of either reluctance on either (or both) sides to stand firm on past action or a stubbornness to consider alternatives. This paper will suggest some ways to address the problems by means of evolving cooperation among the various entities concerned.

Background to the problem

The problem requires elucidation. Boissy and Schatz (2011), speaking from the vendor's perspective say, “We are told over and over again that we live in an information economy and in an increasingly intellectual and specialized world. Scholars want resources available at their fingertips. Users now expect it. We cannot go back; we cannot regress to some earlier state (even if should desire to do so). As always, we need to figure out how to pay for it all, and how to preserve what we create” (p. 483). There is a presumption that is mentioned but taken for granted. We live in and information economy. Does that necessarily mean that every information artefact is a commodity? Should every “product” have material value? Is there nothing that exists for, and in, the public interest? Another way to state this question is: Can there be research and scholarship that exist for their own sakes, for the elucidation of questions as well as for the provision of answers of material benefit? Is there a particular political economy (rather than an explicitly financial economy) that complicates information production and consumption? That complication includes a necessary acceptance that “production” is by no means limited to the commercial preparation of artefacts for sale. Scholars and researchers write the works that are then sold by many companies (at substantial profits). The market that typifies scholarly communication is not exactly like other traditional dual-party markets. As Vardi (2012) observes, “On one side, you have authors, who freely and eagerly provide content (‘publish or perish"). On the other side, there are editors and reviewers, who act as gatekeepers. They do so for a variety of reasons: sometimes for financial remuneration, but mostly out of civic duty and to gain scholarly prestige” (p. 5). To add to Vardi's claim, authors act in self-interest.

The players

Presidents, chancellors, and provosts of colleges and universities establish the criteria for tenure and promotion and, thus, are able to exert enormous control over the work of the faculty. [The discussion here will concentrate on North American institutions, which act with much greater individual autonomy than do institutions of higher learning in Western Europe, which may be bound by governmental regulation. Thus, political economy in various countries can vary considerably.] That control is economic in nature; faculty are rewarded (with tenure and promotion, with merit raises, etc.) for production that is defined in particular ways. Over the last few decades producers, such Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley have been the primary determiners of the ecological environment, even though the institutions have fed that ecology. A reality that must be accepted is that this ecology has not been a cooperative one. Yes, there has been adaptation, but it has largely been a combination of predation and defence. For the conclusion to come about, the contingency has to be transformed into actual alternative causes and effects. The task here is to establish precisely what is required for the contingent premises to become actualized. We can begin with one component of analysis. The players in this complex market behave in vastly different ways. The large journal producers, to a considerable extent, have created a market by expanding the numbers of journals available and the numbers of pages that are published.

In other words, the increased volume was not sufficient; there was an entrepreneurial opportunity to enhance revenues in ways that exceeded volume. These companies created their own side of the market, without consultation with the other players (but then, they do not really require consultation) (see Madrick, 2011: 180-86). Libraries are, substantially, reactive to the producers; producers presume that libraries are inelastic markets. The prices have been set, and libraries pay those prices. That is, of course, as over-simplification. Libraries have formed cooperative consortia, and one of the outcomes of the consortia has been more powerful negotiating power with the publishers. The journal producers were no longer setting the process alone; they had to work with multiple libraries that had millions of dollars at stake. Libraries began to alter the ecology.

The major premise can be clarified to state that the publishers, as well as the consumers, face a looming abyss. The profit margins of the producers are not sustainable, for a few reasons, the principal one being the growth of open access publication. If open access bypasses traditional journal publication, profits can fall because of a potential decline in net revenue. What has been done (to reduce the argument here for space purposes to a single item) concentrates on the dynamics of open access, which is, itself, an ideology in its own right. It is characterized primarily by an optimism that may exceed the potential. The idea of open access is also characterized by a substantial number of journals that offer lower, or even no, cost to users. In keeping with a component with the traditional journal ideology, open access journals customarily employ very similar kinds of peer review as a quality control mechanism. [As an aside, almost no journals pay referees to review manuscripts, affirming the rationality of production.] Suber (2012) offers an exceedingly cogent observation about the conflicting ideologies and their rationalities. “Conventional publishers are adapting to the digital age in some respects [to retain their causal status]. They're migrating most print journals to digital formats and even dropping their print editions. They're incorporating hyperlinks, search engines, and alert services. A growing number are [sic] digitizing their back files and integrating texts with data” (p. 35). Another static dilemma crops up. As the traditional corporate sources create more electronic tolls and items, libraries might lose access to more and more information. Vardi (2012), recognizing the increase in open access sources, says that there are more than two players in this market. The multiple players complicate the marketplace and can affect pricing and consumption. An analysis is needed of readers' usage and preferences of open access content compared with traditional content paid for by libraries. A study conducted by the Wellcome Trust, although published in 2004, stated, “When readers are required to pay high prices, for accessing research outputs, they would be expected to abandon high-priced journals and substitute them from other sources, but readers are ‘protected' from these price implications through the library system. The market is, in this respect, highly inefficient” (p. 4). The report (2004) added, “A charge to authors would potentially act as a disincentive to publication. The extent of the disincentive would depend largely upon the opportunities for alternative publication routes” (p. 4)

For the most part, a library must continue to pay for database access, or the entire back file may be lost. An alternative offered by some producers is the possibility to purchase back files, but the price is very high. For example, Elsevier enables institutions to purchase back files according to a pricing formula:

This programme enables ScienceDirect customers to fill in Backfiles for specific titles from 1995 onwards that are not included as part of their current subscription entitlement (four-year Backfiles plus the current year building). They can be purchased for a one-time fee on a title-by-title basis at a 5% of the current catalogue subscription price x the number of years involved. The Backfiles titles selected must match all or a subset of the customer's holdings (sciverse.com. Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6I858IM2y).

It may be that few institutions have the wherewithal to make such purchases. The hopes of stasis (part of the dominant ecological culture) are rendered extremely problematic. Open access carries its own challenges as well. For example, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) charges authors publication fees. PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine charge fees of $2,900 each. “Open” access may not always be so open. In 2011 PLOS Biology published 128 research articles; at $2,900 per article the publication fee resulted in a gross revenue of $371,200. As institutions smaller than the largest research universities require more and more publications of their faculty, some open access publications may be closed by the pricing to authors. The difficulty is represented graphically by Baveye (2010):

Figure 1: Dynamics of publishing
Figure 1: Dynamics of publishing (Baveye, 2010: 200)

The efficacy of open access is a question that requires much more investigation; at this time it may hold some promise, but it is not a complete financial solution. An ultimate answer will require a deep examination of the full political economy of communication, including the micro-level of individual, institutional, and company decisions. The decisions may not optimize a macroeconomic solution to scholarly communication in general.

Analysis and directions

The scholarly communication network, most agree, is dysfunctional. As is presented here, the causes of dysfunction rest with every one of the players. There is a simplistic cause for the problem, and rests with the political economy of the United States (although many players, especially information producers, are outside the U.S., factors at work in the United States exert enormous influence). Without going into great detail, in large part because of limitations of space, the social structure of the United States is based on an ideology of individualism (see Levine, 2004). This individualism is fraught, though, and is complicated by varying definitions and appropriations of “individualism.”

“Individualism” features here because the players have tended to look only to their own interests, without consideration for a complex cooperative system. For instance, the large companies have concentrated on maximizing profit, while researchers have looked to maximizing numbers of publications so as to create prestige, both locally on their respective campuses, and nationally (and beyond) in their disciplines. Individualism, especially on the part of faculty, is manifest in particular ways in contemporary times. Canadian scholar John Ralston Saul (2003) clearly recognized the upside-down dynamic when he noted that individualism largely made the economic phenomena possible (p. 3). The reverse of the reasonable is exacerbated by the several ranking structures (such as U. S. News & World Report) that tend to shift both consciousness and ideology. There is little loyalty to the institution and more attention to self-aggrandizement.

[N.B.: The above phenomenon may have been changing recently since, because of institutional fiscal constraints plus the diminishing of tenured and tenure-track positions in favour of non-tenure-track positions. This alteration has resulted in a lessening of institutional loyalty to faculty.] The system is characterized by individual preference and perceived personal utility. Cooperation is sorely challenged in such a structure.

The economics of the system is not only inefficient, it has wider-ranging effects on entire higher-education institutions by rendering libraries ineffective users of available resources, and faculty ineffective members of the institution's ideal social culture. The commercial information producers, at this point in time, do not have to care about the actions of the other players, since those others are only committed to self-interest and individual utility. What is required to alter the dispositions of the players? They will not be changed simply by virtue of the beneficence of one of the players. Years ago Garrett Hardin (1966) posited the idea of the Tragedy of the commons. Suffice it to say here, the idea holds that, if a resource is presumed to be common, but is not realized as mutually beneficial for the future, the resource will be overused and all players will lose. It is not a huge leap to information world to be a commons that is endangered. Libraries" budgets are stretched to breaking points. Faculty are so pressured to publish and acquire external funding for their research that they are discouraged from teaching effectively. The longer term of corporate profits are endangered by the other factors. University administrators appear to be oblivious to the dilemma. Can the growth in both the number and size this state; it has evolved as a result of conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious actions be the variety of players. The decisions were made in the absence of any clear understanding of journals continue unabated? A more important question is: Should the growth in both number and size of journals continue? From the year 2000 to the present, a total of 1,231 publications are classified as duplicate publications in the database MEDLine (cause, or effect?).

Where do we go?

As was mentioned earlier, some of the actions undertaken by the parties are less than conscious. This, of course, does not apply to all players all the time. The corporate entities are aware of their motives and the outcomes. On the other hand, they may not be fully aware of the impact of their actions on the other players. Their profit motive is actually a short-term goal; if future developments (including open access journals and institutional repositories (see Burns, Lana, and Budd, forthcoming)) are successful as another development,, revenues of corporate information sources may decline. The effects of repositories could be magnified if large-scale, global initiatives were to develop unified search and retrieval mechanisms that would allow a scholar located anywhere to gain access to materials deposited in any institutional repository.

Libraries are well aware of the monetary impact of journal and database prices, as well as the effects on monographic purchases. A great deal has been written about the dilemma; a considerable amount of empirical investigation has demonstrated that pricing has had a deleterious impact on information resources. Librarians are decidedly aware of what corporate actions do to academic communities. While there is an awareness of much of the predicament, there is a great deal that remains unknown. For example, many librarians are aware of the problem related to the sources of published materials, but connections between the growth of literatures and institutional practices may not always be made.

The administrators of colleges and universities may be least conscious of the systemic difficulties (perhaps by obliviousness or by choice). In fact, it may be that there are administrators who are unaware of the systemic nature of the problem, perhaps especially the political power held by commercial publishers (and their influence over academic decisions). As long as the requirements for tenure and promotion continue to increase (that is, if more and more publications and presentations are required of faculty), many of the aforementioned challenges will remain. In many instances, as Martin Nowak (2011) states, the customary problem is scarcity; the academic difficulty is just the reverse. Faculty members produce more, frequently at the insistence of administrators. A working logic may hold that the more content that is produced, the greater the opportunity for knowledge growth. Examination of such phenomena as cognitive load theory should be applied to examine that assumption (although that is beyond the scope of the investigation here). Another future study can encompass the entire evolutionary dynamic, not merely of production, but of learning and knowledge growth. While a great amount of empirical work is required to examine the details of the systemic elements, the definitions of the fundamental problems are articulated here. In truth, the initial stage of addressing this matter should be raising the consciousness of academic administrators, and any promising development of evolutionary progress with this group. Little can be done without teleological change that embraces the entirety of the scholarly endeavour. Such a tactic would be a beginning.

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How to cite this paper

Budd, J.M. (2013). Scholarly communication's problems: an analysis. Information Research, 18(3) paper S01. [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperS01.html]

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