BOOK AND SOFTWARE REVIEWS


Morrison, Heather. Scholarly communication for librarians. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2009. xviii, 245, pp. ISBN 978-1-843344-88-9. 47.00.


The author of this book is characterized as 'a passionate advocate of open access' (p. ix) and in this case the passion does not cloud clear judgement. I have rarely read such a straightforward account of the trends in modern scholarly communication for librarians and particularly for academic librarians. As the book is based on the course that the author has taught at the University of British Columbia, I can only wish that the course is continued. There is a good summary of the possibilities facing scholarly communication and libraries provided by the author in the book:

There is a potential future world where knowledge is shared openly with everyone, and people work together collaboratively to resolve problems and advance our understanding of our world and ourselves; an age of enlightenment. There is another potential future world where knowledge is seen solely as a commodity to be bought and sold (p. 177).

For scholars and for librarians there is no problem of which future to choose. Unfortunately, the ignorance of the scholars about scholarly communication exceeds that of librarians. It (the ignorance) is fruitfully exploited by clever lobbying by commercial publishers that still hold the larger part of the scientific publishing market as well as huge financial power. Therefore, books like this one - transparent and clear - are very welcome and should be publicized as widely as possible.

The author addresses her audience, mainly, librarians, in a structured way and explores one by one the problems of scholarly communication, publishing and library work. None of the problems is treated lightly or partially, though the author expresses her position very clearly. I can only support most of her analysis and ideas by recommending library and information science schools, research managers, and libraries to acquire the book, read it and think deeply of their role in the process.

But I would like also to have some input in the discussion of at least two points raised in the book.

First, I would like to clear up a point on the Open Access journal issue. It seems that with some reservations, the author agrees that journals charging 'article processing' fees and having no subscription or other distribution fees are open access journals. I would disagree about that.

When in the 1970s I was studying scholarly communication as a student there was no entirely open, free of charge access to journals; although, in the Soviet Union, I could afford to subscribe personally to the four best scholarly journals in the field from my student's stipendium. I did not subscribe to more because of the lack of space to store the publications rather than because of the price. However, these were only the journals published in Soviet Union and the foreign journals were as a rule inaccessible for ideological reasons, and also because of prices. The serials crisis was already approaching its peak. There were also the journals that introduced 'article processing' charges to lower the subscription price.

However, our professor in scholarly communication did not regard this as a positive development and at present I would not consider this as any kind of open access for the same reasons that I learned and accepted then:

  1. The money paid as 'article processing' fees comes from the same pocket as the subscription fees - from the university or research institute budget, which has already paid for the production of raw material (articles) given free of charge to the publisher. In other words, research institutions still are paying twice in support of publishing. If a researcher has to find the grant for publishing, the institution still funds the time necessary to get this grant and part of the research grant is redirected from the actual research work to increase publisher's profit.
  2. The 'article processing' fee is a greater evil than a subscription fee. It closes the publishing process at the entry point for those who cannot afford to pay. This is dangerous for academic freedom and research independence as researchers who have to publish not to perish will be inclined to accept the conditions of the funders.
  3. In addition, an 'article processing' fee potentially distorts the peer review process or rather the outcome of it. The articles at the final stage may be selected not on the basis of their excellence, but on the basis of financial capacity and power of the author or rather the institution employing the author. And only very naive people could accept 'sincere denials' that this is not the case of the publishers making up to 30 percent profits and willing to raise them to 38 percent (p. 48).
  4. The most beneficial publishing model for the scholarly community is a university, research council, or scholarly society subsidized journal publishing model that gets rid of all the threats mentioned earlier. This was confirmed by Mark McCabe at the Third Nordic Conference on Scholarly Communication where he presented '[t]he economic models [of scholarly publishing]... well founded and impossible to dispute. Maximum social value is open on both sides: input as well as output, and it was entirely incompatible with any profit maximizing model. In response to a question, he also noted that the 'subsidised journal' model 'maximises social value and is the model that ought to be supported by the research councils' (Wilson & Macevičiūtė 2006). A thorough presentation of the complicated economic environment of scholarly publishing was later published by McCabe and Snyder (2007), but it does not explore the economic model of a subsidized journal.

The fact that open access BMC journals based on the 'article processing' fees were acquired by a huge for-profit publisher, Springer (p. 73) is, I think, a good argument that these threats are not imaginary.

The second point refers the the impact factor. The impact factor criticism presented by the author is just: it does not show the citation for a concrete article and not all journals are measured. There is more to add. Though it is quite clear what actually is measured by the impact factor, it is not self-evident what defines the rate of citation per article in a journal and if these factors have anything to do with the quality of a journal. The highest impact factor at present belongs to Cancer Journal for Clinicians (74.575). Two other medical journals New England Journal of Medicine (50.017) and Annual Review of Immunology (41.059) hold the second and the third place. Nine journals in the 2008 JCR Science Edition have impact factors above 30. At the same time in the 2008 JCR Social Science Edition the highest impact factor of 16.217 belongs to the Annual Review of Psychology followed by Archives of General Psychiatry (14.273). Seven journals in the social sciences have impact factors of over 10, nowhere near the highest impact factors of natural science journals. Does this mean that social science journals are so much worse than the natural science journals? Or is it an indication of different citation traditions in the disciplines? Or maybe the impact factor is related to some other salient feature of disciplines or scholarly behaviour.

There are many interesting issues for discussion of the future of scholarly communication raised in the book - it is worth exploring them and this book is a good place to start.

References

Elena Macevičiūtė
Vilnius University
December, 2009