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Magazines > Information Today > March 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 3 — March 2003
PSP 2003 Annual Conference
The Scholarly Publishing Debate
By Dick Kaser

What do you get when you invite a journal publisher, a librarian, and a professor to sit on a panel to discuss the values of scholarly communication and the business of scholarly publishing?

a) A meeting of the minds

b) An interesting debate

c) Nowhere ... fast

Hundreds attending the AAP's PSP (Professional and Scholarly Publishing) 2003 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., from Feb. 3 to 5 heard the point of view of users, intermediaries, and vendors—again. Will this debate, which has gone on now for nearly a generation, ever end?

User: I just want to share my ideas (and get recognized).

"Scientists want to be known for their research. Ideally, they need a basic system of communication where information flows freely. In a Faustian bargain, they give away their rights [copyrights to publishers] so their name can be known. With digitization, they see an economic system that has curiously impeded the flow of ideas. Does the research endeavor exist to support publishing or does it exist to support research?"

Jean-Claude Guédon, professor of comparative literature,
Université de Montréal

Librarian: I just want to help scholars share their ideas (while controlling costs).

"Publishers want to maximize revenues from institutional libraries, and institutions want to control costs.... There is an emerging desire on the part of publishers to reach through the standard point of sale [the library] and set conditions for control of products and use, which interferes and disrupts traditional work flows and feels intrusive to institutions. . . . Publishers view ideas as property and go to great lengths to assert property ownership. Academic authors view ideas as ideas, even when set in a tangible form. They are unhappy if they are told they can't use their idea in a way they see fit. It's their ideas that get them the Nobel Prize."

Ann Wolpert, director of libraries,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Publisher: I just want to help scholars share their ideas (while making a profit).

"Publishers have adopted a licensing approach, which has resulted in tremendous increases in access. We can't rest until everyone who wants to have access has access. Whatever [model] is good for the community will be adopted, even by Elsevier."

Pieter Bolman, director of STM relations,
Elsevier Science

So there you have it, the three points of view. But seriously now, are they really that different?

Isn't it true that each seems to be agreeing with the basic premise that it's all about helping scholars get their ideas out? Isn't it true that the only variable seems to be the motivation for doing so—the scholar has his ambition, the librarian has a budget to keep, and the commercial publisher has a stockholder who wants to see the share price go up?

OK, they seem to have different views on the precise means for doing it, but can't those details be worked out? Especially by such intelligent folk?

Monetary objectives and a desire for success would seem to be the common drivers that unite these three schools of thought. And no one here is wearing a completely white hat. Could we possibly rise above the moral hyperbole?

Wasn't it Locke who said that the noblest of causes are best achieved by each one of us pursuing our own selfish interest? Rather than seeing something wrong with the system we've got, perhaps it's time to marvel at the wonderful intricacy of this complex process that, like an ecosystem, engages all these diverse players in a symbiotic dance.

Despite its flaws, the current system of scientific communication somehow manages every year to get the research results of all the scholars in the world officially reported and available for access. It may not be a perfect system. And it may not be cheap. But in the support of intellectual advancement, society could certainly do worse.



Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is
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