Vol. 10 No. 1 January 2002
The Scholars Rebellion Against Scholarly Publishing Practices: Varmus, Vitek, and Venting
by Myer Kutz Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
In the decades-long arguments over STM (scientific/technical/medical) journal publishing, mainly about subscription price increases and intellectual property and accessibility issues, one thing has changed in the last few years. Scholars have become involved. Everyone in STM journal publishing, no matter whether they work on the publishing (producer and seller) side or on the library (customer and collector) side, agrees that scholars (authors and readers) are involved now. The question is, what will come of their involvement? 

In a range of telephone conversations I had recently with a focus-group-size number of veteran STM publishers at commercial houses, university presses, and societies all of whom said they spoke only for themselves, not their employer, and not all of whom wished to be quoted by name (so I won't quote any by name), I asked provocatively what they thought of the term "scholar rebellion." 

"First time I've heard it phrased that way," a university press publisher said mildly, "although people have been promoting free distribution for some time." 

"Rebellion isn't the best term," a senior executive at a major commercial STM publisher said. "That's not the right word." 

"Scholar rebellion? I think it's pushing it. Rebellion is a bit ridiculous as a term," said a senior executive at another major commercial STM house. 

But a society publisher had a different take on the term: "Scholar rebellion? I'm not sure what they're rebelling against," she said. "Scholarly publishers look at what they do as a service, not a crime. Without scholarly publishers, scholars' work would not have the dissemination that it does. Besides, most societies break even with their publications, or, with the large-circulation titles, make money with advertising. 

"Scholars are rebelling," she went on, "against their institutions with regard to intellectual property. Distance learning is a big issue. MIT put coursework online without examining the intellectual property issues. Scholars assume they own their own coursework. Institutions say they own it. What you can say is that scholars are rebelling against big commercial publishers."

And an executive at a commercial secondary publisher with whom I spoke in the summer of 2001 answered my scholar rebellion question more broadly: "The Internet and copyright issues, the ability of people to self-publish, have conspired to put pressure on full-text publishers."

Well, no matter whether you call the current scholar involvement a rebellion or not, publishers of all stripes have something to say about it. But before turning to their comments, let's go back a few years to see how and when scholars got involved in the STM publishing issues that have roiled librarians for so long.

Publishing Reality: Scholars Drive the Process
Here's the way I want you look at STM journals publishing: It's scholar-driven. I say this even though, except for a handful of weekly medical and scientific journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, and except for the technical magazines and journals that dues-paying members of societies receive, libraries pay almost all of the subscription fees. 

Here's the argument: Journals receive articles for publication because scholars have a need to publish, whether simply to disseminate the results of their research or to further their professional standing. The editors and editorial boards of journals the people who decide which articles to publish and which ones to reject are scholars themselves, as are the reviewers who determine the quality of submissions. And those same authors, editors, and reviewers, now in their role as readers of journal articles, constitute the patrons whose interests librarians satisfy by obtaining journal issues and making them available on the shelves and in the stacks, or by providing access to online versions of the journals. So while libraries may be the market for journals, the business is driven by scholars.

Librarians have long complained that commercial publishers have only been able to earn substantial profits from the publication of journals, particularly STM journals, as a result of scholars' efforts. These profit levels, buoyed by increases in subscription prices, are a source of considerable friction between librarians and commercial publishers. While publishers have been reluctant to criticize their customers, those same customers librarians have not been shy about criticizing publishers. Some critics have seemed so strident at times. For example one prominent STM publishing executive told me that back in the late 1980s he routinely refused invitations to debate librarians on panels addressing the friction between librarians and publishers because he did not wish to be subject to the verbal abuse he felt sure to receive. 

Don't get the impression that publishers hide under their desks when librarians are around. STM, the international publishers group, has had a library relations committee, directly engaged with librarians, for many years. The Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers, together with the Council on Library Information Resources, is starting up a similar committee, to be composed of equal numbers of academic and corporate librarians and publishers. For starters, agenda items may include archiving/linking, usage data, "fair use" issues, licensing, and identifier and numbering systems.

"The library community is critical of the costs of journal titles, but there is no correlation to the costs of individual articles," a publisher said to me in defense of the industry position on price increases. "The question is, what do they get for what they pay?" The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) makes the opposing case with this set of statistics in support of its position on subscription price increases:

North America 1986-99

Journal unit cost +207%

Journals expenditure +170%

Journals purchased -6%

Faculty salaries +68%

Consumer Price Index +49%

Until the past few years, the conventional wisdom among publishers was that scholars were not interested in joining the volleys of words that librarians directed at publishers. After all, a rationale for subscription price increases was that an increasing level of research, as well as scholars' professional need to publish the results of their research, led to more papers, which led to more pages, more issues, and more volumes in a journal, and, therefore, to higher prices. According to this rationale, the scholars themselves were the cause of the price increases; the publishers were merely gatekeepers. Furthermore, most publishers refused to believe that scholars would desert an established, high-impact, peer-reviewed journal, which conferred status on their research. 

Librarians' strategies for coping with price increases did not involve scholars, except when librarians solicited their opinions about paring journal acquisition lists. Besides journal cancellations, libraries relegated their strategies to improved document delivery, with its uncounted expenses, cooperative collection development, and the consortial purchasing and licensing that publishers' initiatives, particularly those involving the Internet, made simpler. (Publishers assert that their initiatives have been beneficial to libraries. "Online editions and consortia have increased access," a university press publisher told me. "There's significant additional usage when consortia deals are done.") 

Then, in late 1997, an event at Purdue University indicated the potential for enlisting scholar involvement on the librarians' side in the STM journals war. That fall, campus librarians had asked a faculty advisory group on journals collection to do something about subscription price increases and the library's inability to keep up with them. The faculty raised a fuss, and on December 1, Russ White, then head of Elsevier Science, met with a group of professors at Purdue. When you look back at the widely read account that appeared in The New York Times on December 29, the meeting seems to have been a trailer for the struggle that was to come when scholars became fully involved. [Read it yourself: Gilpin, Kenneth N., "Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant," New York Times, v147 , December 29, 1997, p. D2 (Late City Edition), col 1., available on LexisNexis.] 

When White told the professors that prices for online versions of Elsevier journals could be locked in at annual increase of 9.5 percent, the response was not only that Purdue could not and would not absorb anything close to that level of price rise, but also that the quality of what they were getting wasn't worth the money. (Purdue, according to the Times, was spending more than $1 million annually on Elsevier journals.) A medical chemistry professor offered invective: "Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible," he said. "Why do we want to buy garbage at 9.5 percent price increases?" It looked like the librarians and the professors had bonded.

By the latter 1990s, Internet empowerment of researchers gave rise to proposals for new relationships between scholars and publishers. Some suggested, for example, that authors of works based on federally supported science should, instead of transferring copyright, retain copyright and only issue licenses to their publishers. Others proposed that scholars should bypass both commercial and not-for-profit publishers alike. Back in the early 1990s, Paul Ginsparg showed what Internet empowerment meant when he set up the Los Alamos Physics e-Print archive [], a free public repository that now covers most of physics, and has expanded to include repositories for nonlinear sciences, mathematics, computation, and language. Over 130,000 papers have been self-archived on the site since 1991. It grows at the rate of about 25,000 per year, handles over 70,000 transactions per day, and has over 35,000 users. Funded by the DOE and NSF, it has a full-time staff, mirrored in 16 countries, offering search facilities and e-mail notification of new submissions of interest. 

In this changed and charged atmosphere, ARL established a vehicle SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition for making scholars greater stakeholders in new publishing ventures. SPARC would not take the position that journals ought to be free, but focused on making them more accessible. The first question: Why did the journals have to cost so much? Lower prices would enable greater access from the start. SPARC saw itself as a catalyst for change. In one of its initiatives, it would offer near-term savings opportunities for libraries by expanding capacity among not-for-profit publishers and even by giving capacity to scholars themselves, so as to incubate competitive, or alternative, publications, and give them time to attract prestigious authors. 

SPARC would see its role as adviser, marketer, and salesperson. To help get alternative publications underway, SPARC would first publicize the pricing problem of commercially published journals, stimulate examination of the issues and solutions, and encourage action by scholars. SPARC would aid editors, societies, and universities to build publishing capacity and reduce startup risk. The objective was to lower barriers to entry for competitors, thereby creating alternatives for authors and encouraging new publishing models that would lower prices. 

By 2001, 3 years into its existence, SPARC had 10 alternative publications up and running. Publications committees in professional societies, made up of researchers who serve voluntarily, have approved the creation of five alternative journals, which are produced by the societies' professional staffs two at the American Chemical Society (ACS), two at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC, based in the U.K.), and one at the IEEE (the U.S.-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). One alternative journal is published by Cambridge University Press. One has been established by a professor, Michael L. Rosenzweig, at the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, who, through his proselytizing Web site, has become something of a poster boy for direct scholar involvement in journal publishing. Two have been established in the Mathematics Department of the University of Warwick at Coventry, U.K. One is produced by an entity founded by a group of researchers. 

Among the traditional journals under attack from the alternatives are eight published by Elsevier and two by Kluwer. (Probably the most prominent of the adversaries are Elsevier's Tetrahedron Letters vs. ACS' Organic Letters.) These journals are old enough to have grown large, in terms of number of pages published annually, and, therefore, expensive on a per-title basis. Averaging the subscription fees for the 10 journals shows a price exceeding $4,000.

Five of the alternative journals fall in the chemistry disciplines, two in mathematics, one in electrical engineering, and one in computer science. Rosenzweig's journal, Evolutionary Ecology Research, is the only life-science alternative journal out of the SPARC initiatives. But, as we shall see, what with several key alternative publishing initiatives proposed and implemented over the past 2.5 years, the greatest pressure on established publishing is in the life sciences. "The greatest noise is in the biomedical field," a journals publisher told me recently, "because the preprint movement could not take hold there. If you're unsure of the data you present, there's a potential for liability. Biomedicine isn't like physics, which has a culture of preprints. Societies have learned to live with Ginsparg. But what he's done hasn't been tried on the biomedical side. You might think that because of the large amount of advertising dollars present, biomedical publishers could be more adventuresome. But societies have trouble with linking to sites with advertisements." 

Dr. Varmus Calling
In the spring of 1999, around the time the ACS launched the second of the SPARC-sponsored alternative journals, Organic Letters, Dr. Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), proposed an initiative called E-biomed, a system that would archive and distribute electronic versions of biomedical research articles unedited and unreviewed manuscripts, as well as articles that had gone through the traditional peer-review system. 

"The essential feature of the plan is simplified, instantaneous, cost-free access by potential readers to E-biomed's entire content," Varmus wrote in an online proposal for the system. "The system we propose is intended to make knowledge and ideas in life sciences widely and freely accessible to the scientific community and the public, in the tradition of free public libraries." 

In his proposal, Varmus noted that "electronic communication is making dramatic changes in the way information is exchanged among scientists." But "despite these welcome and transforming changes, the full potential of electronic communication has yet to be realized. The scientific community has made only sparing use thus far of the Internet as a means to publish scientific work and to distribute it widely and without significant barriers to access."

Varmus, sounding for all the world as if he were setting E-biomed up to deal directly with authors and compete with established publishers (whether commercial or society, it didn't seem to matter to him), suggested that shortcomings in the current system of publication resulted in inefficient allocation of costs and labor, as well as unmet publication needs in the research community. A single repository would benefit both authors and readers authors from rapid publication, one-stop submission, and the addition of possible commentaries to the articles; readers from barrier-free access, one-stop searching/reading, inclusion of "journal approved" articles.

In contrast to the practices of established journal publishers, authors would retain copyright of articles posted to E-biomed, and articles could be freely downloaded but reproduced only with their permission. E-biomed would have two sites for authors: In one, reports would be submitted to editorial boards, which could be identical to those that represented current print journals or composed of some other newly formed groups. "Other reports," Varmus wrote, "would be posted immediately in the E-biomed repository, prior to any conventional peer review, after passing a simple screen for appropriateness." Varmus noted that "each report would need to be approved by two individuals with appropriate credentials" who presumably would ensure that the articles were related to the subject areas of E-biomed and not too "extraneous or outrageous."

Varmus devoted just one paragraph of his proposal to extolling the virtues (peer review, the ability of journals to confer status and grounds for career advancement, attractive formats, and convenience) of the current system of scientific publishing, which he acknowledged has worked well for more than 300 years. He concluded the proposal with an invitation to the scientific community to submit comments. 

In the ensuing weeks, many editors, academics, and society publications directors in the life-science publishing community were among the hundreds who weighed in with criticism. For example, Dr. Marcia Angell, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, which is published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, was quoted, "It would make the journal the paper journal, and also the journal Web site merely archival. Redundant. Insofar as that happened, it would weaken the journals and maybe even destroy them." (A New York Times article on the controversy said that NEJM's annual profit has been estimated at over $20 million.) Thomas E. DeCoursey, a professor of molecular biophysics at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center, wrote that the idea "would serve mainly to lower the quality of scientific research. It would cheapen the value of scientific publication, diminish accountability of both scientists and reviewers, and thus encourage fraud." Michael M. Cox, a biochemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote, "It will inevitably become a massive repository of taxpayer-supported junk that very few will read." 

"Varmus is perceived as 'naïve' in his proposal by many in scholarly publishing," Susan Knapp, the American Psychological Association's senior director of publications, wrote. "He ignores the value of peer review in his proposal concerning draft manuscripts, and many professionals are concerned about how this material may be used. In addition, the idea that editorial boards and publishers will voluntarily and for free provide editing and peer review for articles submitted to E-biomed is not likely to be viable."

More favorable responses were made, as well. While the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) announced on its Web site that it would not be involved in any efforts to set up an electronic depository for non-peer-reviewed biomedical research, EMBO, headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, did say that it supported the principle of a single electronic Web site where all life-sciences data is readily searchable. EMBO's statement said that the question of such a single site's existence has long been "when, rather than whether." But the organization's executive director, Frank Gannon, said that a depository for material without peer review, which forms a key part of the NIH's proposal, could "severely undermine biomolecular research," and should therefore be monitored. EMBO proposed that alongside the two categories proposed by the NIH i.e., fully refereed and non-refereed material a third should be set up with a panel of assessors to check the soundness of researchers' science, without all the further requirements of traditional peer review.

Varmus went on the road to discuss his proposal. On June 2, for example, he spoke to the FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) Publications and Communications Committee. FASEB considered its member societies directly affected by the Varmus proposal, but in both his Web response and in public forums, Varmus was dismissing the notion that the viability of scientific societies would be undermined by depriving them of significant sources of income currently derived from subscriptions, membership fees driven by the desire to acquire scholarly society publications, and advertising.

According to FASEB's own account of the meeting, committee members asked how the proposed system would be funded and who would pay for it. They asked questions about management and raised concerns about general oversight, as well as quality control. They asked about the statutory authority and public oversight for a decision of this magnitude, as well as about government competition with the private sector. They discussed problems of editing and processing a large volume of manuscripts. 

FASEB Member Societies wrote letters to Varmus, some of them line-by-line reviews of his proposal. The American Physiological Society (APS) argued that despite Varmus's contention, many of the leading societal and non-profit publishers were already on the Internet. "First and foremost," the American Association of Immunologists'(AAI) wrote, "we find that this proposal compromises the cornerstone of the scientific method: peer review." AAI also mentioned concerns over the creation of a monopoly by having a sole, centralized publisher and the conflict of interest that arises by having that monopoly in the hands of the "funding agency charged with carrying out the assessment of the scientific accomplishment of an investigator now also [carrying] out one of the most important signifiers of that merit publishing."

The American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB noted in its letter that "the implementation of a monolithic organization responsible for all of scientific communication . . . may have a consequence of impeding the healthy diversity of existing journals." 

The American Society of Investigative Pathology (ASIP) concluded its letter by asking: "Is this the best use of NIH funds? Should funding of E-biomed be a priority over research grant funding? In bad years, will the NIH reduce resources to this program to preserve research funding? Who then will sustain the effort?. . . Should more consideration be given to organizing the existing electronic efforts of publishers to achieve the goals of the proposal?" 

The letter from the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) suggested a non-competitive role for the NIH: "to establish an electronic repository that contained the full text, fully searchable versions of past scientific literature. By guaranteeing the maintenance of this archive and providing tools through which it could be searched, NIH could play a constructive complementary role to that of the academic publishers and one that would represent collaboration rather than needless competition."

On June 30, Varmus, along with representatives from three publishing organizations, talked to science writers at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. Although the meeting was closed to the media, Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society, carried a report. (The report portrays the flavor of the debates and deserves to be quoted here.) C&EN reported that sources present told of an adversarial tone which dominated discussions between Varmus and his audience, with Varmus expressing surprise at the vehement reaction coming from some publishers. At one point, according to C&EN, he derisively called a publisher's comments about E-biomed "paranoiac." 

The C&EN report continued: "He said it is not E-biomed's intention to eliminate peer review and existing journals. 'On the contrary, we are eager to encourage journals, especially those with strong reputations for rigorous reviewing and careful editing, to become part of the system.' He argued that E-biomed does not duplicate what current journals are doing in electronic publishing, as publishers claim, citing that E-biomed would be free, unlike existing journals that charge 'large' fees." Already, Varmus, though still contentious, was sounding less like a publisher than he had in his proposal only weeks earlier.

As for the peer-review controversy, C&EN went on to report that Varmus "noted the legitimate concern about the posting of erroneous or misleading data, but said a large part of E-biomed will be peer reviewed, and that few scientists would knowingly post erroneous information because it could damage their reputations. He assured people that information on E-biomed will be 'properly archived' so that it will be accessible in the future.

"Critics have charged that E-biomed meddles with the private sector and could be construed as a 'takeover by the U.S. government.' Varmus insisted: 'The system we have proposed welcomes the participation of existing journals, does not obligate any journals to join, and would not be owned by the NIH or any other component of the U.S. government.'

"He described an advisory board that would set general policy and oversee E-biomed's operations, noting that it would be made up of representatives from the international science community, scientific societies, libraries, the general public, and advocacy groups and would be international in scope."

As for the economics of the system, Varmus, according to C&EN, "estimated it would cost $2 million to $3 million per year to operate E-biomed. He claimed that the infrastructure to do this is already in place...." Varmus also posited that operating costs could come from the moderate page charges paid by authors. 

The three publishing representatives responding to Varmus included Mary C. Waltham, then U.S. president of Nature Publishing Inc., who asked: "What is best for science? The wide, free availability of research will happen with or without E-biomed. [However], too much information is the bane of working scientists. They need well-selected materials and context from trusted sources." She was further concerned about ownership of E-biomed. "Whoever owns the publishing outfit determines its course. Who will own and manage E-biomed? Whose is the ultimate responsibility?"

M. Michele Hogan, executive director of the American Association of Immunologists, which publishes the Journal of Immunology, expressed the views of many scientific society publishers that e-Biomed would be a competing publisher: "It has been suggested that associations' objections are motivated solely by economic self-interest," she said, according to C&EN. "But the proposal would force not-for-profits to compete with NIH for their own content. NIH could become the sole supplier of scientific content and peer review." What would be lost is "peer review independent of government, quality competition among journals, diversity, and technological innovation." Moreover, "publishing could be subject to congressional intervention, the vagaries of inconsistent funding, and possibly conflict of interest."

Elsevier's Karen Hunter commented on Varmus's economic model, noting that his page-charge idea is not done by commercial publishers. Such charges would penalize scientists from poorer nations, she added, and would not meet Varmus' stated goal of free and easier access to scientific information.

The C&EN report concluded: "In closing remarks to science reporters, Varmus said he's forging ahead and hopes to 'initiate a system in a year or so. We're talking to some adventuresome souls who are starting new journals,' he said with a smile as he left the podium."

But by the end of August, Varmus issued a statement that allowed that "[a]lthough the fundamental principles that motivated our proposal remain, specific aspects have evolved in significant ways." One important concession was that "the screening of non-peer-reviewed reports will be the responsibility of groups that have no direct relationship to the NIH."

Also, E-biomed had a new name. Varmus wrote: "This repository which we consider to be the initial site in an international system will be called PubMed Central, based on its natural integration with the existing PubMed biomedical literature database. PubMed itself will extend its coverage of the life sciences and continue its linkage to external online journals." 

Now the Varmus system was no longer a publisher itself, dealing directly with authors, but an aggregator of content developed by established publishers. NIH's responsibility would be limited to maintaining this central repository. PubMed Central would archive, organize, and distribute peer-reviewed reports from journals, as well as reports that have been screened, but not formally peer-reviewed. Varmus wrote: "Peer-reviewed reports will be provided to PubMed Central from participating publishers and societies that have mediated the review process." Copyright would reside with the submitting groups (publishers, societies, or editorial boards) or the authors themselves, as the participants determined.

In yet another concession, publishers could impose embargoes: "The submission of content to PubMed Central can occur at any time after acceptance for publication, at the discretion of the participants. Although early deposition offers the greatest benefit to the scientific community, we recognize the concerns of publishers about financial consequences of rapid submission and will welcome content submitted at any time." 

Control of non-peer-reviewed material was ceded by PubMed Central to outsiders: "The non-peer-reviewed reports will also enter PubMed Central through independent organizations, which will be responsible for screening this material. Many of the non-peer-reviewed reports will be 'preprints,' both deposited in PubMed Central and subjected to formal peer review by journal editorial boards. In other cases, these reports may never be submitted to a journal for traditional peer review, yet will be deposited in PubMed Central because, in the judgment of the screening organization, they provide valuable data to the research community." Varmus asserted that "[s]ome publishers and societies have already planned preprint servers, and we believe that such groups and other responsible groups yet to be constituted can bring diversity and experience to the oversight of the non-peer-reviewed material. We emphasize that this material will be clearly distinguishable from the peer-reviewed content of PubMed Central." 

By the time PubMed Central went online in February 2000, these concessions to publishers had been made. Support for a non-peer-reviewed system was put on hold; peer-reviewed content could be submitted by publishers at any time after being accepted for publication; and copyright ownership would be determined by the participating groups.

At launch, despite the concessions, only two journals had issues available on PMC Molecular Biology of the Cell and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Now 11 journals have issues available. Varmus has moved from Redskins to Giants-Jets territory (he now heads up Memorial Sloan-Kettering), and PubMed Central has morphed into something quite different than what his original proposal envisioned. The box on the home page, which is hard to miss, states: 

PubMed Central is a digital archive of life sciences journal literaturemanaged by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). It is not a journal publisher. Access to PubMed Central (PMC) is free and unrestricted. NEW OPTION for Publishers: PubMed Central (PMC) has relaxed the requirement that full text be viewable free at the PMC site. Now, if a publisher desires, PMC will provide a link to a journal site for full text, instead of displaying it in PMC. [Emphasis added.]

Keeping their journals accessible mainly on their own sites was exactly the approach established publishers, whether commercial, university press, or society, desired. The publishers contend that, in the Internet environment, a central archive like PubMed Central is not needed for access across publisher resources. Searching across distributed systems would be sufficient.

Publishers Jump
In October 1999, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a group of STM publishers agreed to work together to enable the automatic cross-referencing of articles referenced in journal articles. A not-for-profit company called PILA (Publishers International Linking Associates) was formally incorporated in New York in January 2000 to operate the service, named CrossRef. The PILA Board of Directors comprises representatives from a group of commercial and not-for-profit publishers the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of the weekly Science), Academic Press (now owned by Elsevier), the American Institute of Physics, the Association for Computing Machinery, Blackwell Science, Elsevier, the IEEE, Kluwer, Nature, Oxford University Press, Springer-Verlag (owned by Bertelsmann), and Wiley. Run from a central facility, CrossRef functions as a sort of digital switchboard. It holds no full-text content, but instead effects linkages through Digital Object Identifiers (DOI), which are tagged to article metadata supplied by participating publishers, each of whom can set its own access standards and conditions.

CrossRef went live on the Web in early 2000 with more than 1.3 million article records from about 2,700 journals in its metadata database. Approximately 1,100 journals from 33 member publishers had reference links enabled by CrossRef. Now, there are 84 participating publishers accounting for over 5,245 journals, with over 3.5 million article records in the database. In the near future, CrossRef says, it will begin incorporating other reference content such as encyclopedias, textbooks, conference proceedings, and other relevant literature. 

A New Player, a New Game
In late 1999, at around the same time that the STM publishers were coming to agreement on CrossRef, a company that operated outside the STM "club" started to set up the publishing activity that PubMed Central had moved away from. The Current Science Group (CSG), whose chairman is the remarkable Vitek Tracz, announced the creation of a new Web initiative for biomedical authors, BioMed Central []. It promised "to give researchers the tools they need to publish their data quickly and easily and make it widely available on the Internet." 

This new commercial publishing venture, "designed to complement PubMed Central," would peer-review all submissions of original research in all biomedical fields and would make all competent papers, no matter how many ("unlike some other journals, we do not operate 'gatekeeper-ism'"), immediately and freely available through PubMed Central (unlike most other PubMed Central participants, there would be no delay between publication of research in BioMed Central and availability on PubMed Central), as well as through its own Web site, without subscription charges or registration barriers. BioMed Central claimed that its automated peer-review process would ensure that papers would reach referees quickly and efficiently enough for accepted papers to appear online approximately 35 working days after submission.

In defining "gatekeeper-ism" as publishing what is currently fashionable and promoting itself as promising to publish everything that passes peer review, BioMed Central claimed the high ground over established publishers, whose journals have page budgets. "Most journals have limited page budgets and have to filter what they publish," one publisher I spoke with commented. "The rules of economics dictate filtering."

The BioMed Central site launched in the spring of 2000 with the promise that "the role of peer review in BioMed Central is to distinguish between good and bad science. As long as the science is good we will publish it." The company also promised that "All BioMed Central articles will be archived, . . . so their permanent accessibility is assured." In addition, PubMed would index all research articles published in BioMed Central without delay. (PubMed, in my experience, used to be quite picky about starting to index any new publication, waiting to see whether the publication would take hold, but times have changed, apparently.) BioMed Central was "working closely with ISI to ensure that the BioMed Central journals are citation tracked and so will have impact factors in the future." Visibility would be further increased, BioMed Central asserted, because the full text of all research articles on the site would be available without registration or subscription, so Internet search engines would also index them.

Authors would keep copyright, but would grant BioMed Central and anyone who might acquire it an exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license for the full term of copyright to identify itself as the original publisher and to publish the article for commercial purposes in print or in any electronic medium, alone or in combination with other articles. BioMed Central would pay an author a total of 50 percent of net receipts (revenues less costs) from any commercial transactions. 

BioMed Central's promise that access to research articles will remain free means that its economic model has to rely on other sources of revenue, of course. The notion of page charges has been floated, although currently BioMed Central does not have them or charge for color figures. "At some stage, however." BioMed Central states on its Web site, "it will probably need to charge authors a moderate amount for publication to help support the cost of allowing free access to primary papers. If so, the charge would be waived where authors could not afford them." For now, "the company believes that a successful science publishing operation can be built with income generated from offering 'added value' subscription-based information services in the form of review journals, databases, and alerting services in addition to traditional advertising revenues." Furthermore, although BioMed Central is primarily an electronic publishing house, printed archival editions will be made available at the end of each calendar year, and some articles that appear in affiliated journals may also be published in printed form.

"The BioMed Central initiative will have hard going," one commercial publisher asserted. "It's not so easy to sustain as soon as you move outside the U.S. and certain parts of Europe. Besides, the page-charge model rewards the wrong sort of behavior. Those who can pay can publish."

The publishers I spoke with recently are divided on the subject of page charges, although those opposing them probably represent the majority opinion in the industry. "It's great to see somebody revive a concept that's been around for 40 years," one publisher told me. "Grants allow page charges for societies only, not for commercial publishers. Page charges should support the first-copy cost only, and since incremental distribution costs in electronic publishing are very small, page charges can support the whole publishing process." While this publisher thought that a venture that relied on page charges would be a "significant competitor to the current publishing process," he acknowledged that "Vitek will need to find other sources of revenue." A key question is, "Will researchers be willing to spend grant money on publication?" There's that familiar problem, too: "Page charges are more affordable to some groups in some subject areas than to others. There is a big problem in the underdeveloped world."

Another publisher was dismissive of page charges: "They're a dead duck. We took page charges off the last of our society's journals this year. What's the point of hanging onto an old model?" 

"A page charge model?" one publisher snapped. "What's the difference between page charges and vanity publication? You just have a tendency to publish more pages." 

CSG Chairman Vitek Tracz has a history of starting and selling the medical and bioscience publishing ventures he develops. Some he's kept, at least for the time being, including, Gower Medical Publishing (books); Current Science Ltd (the "Current Opinion" series of journals in many areas of clinical medicine, as well as primary medical journals, which he sold); Current Medicine; Current Drugs (the Investigational Drugs Database, IDdb); Science Press; Current Biology Ltd ("Current Opinion" journals in various disciplines of biology, as well as primary journals); one of the first communities on the Web, BioMedNet (which Elsevier bought); Praxis Press (developers of a major clinical medicine Web service,; New Science Press (books and journals, as well as teaching materials in the biological sciences on the Web and in print); and, finally, BioMed Central. No wonder a publishing veteran I spoke with recently reported joking with a colleague, "Vitek started BioMed Central so he could sell it to [you fill in the blank]."

In the summer of 2001, BioMed Central announced that it had instituted a process by which organizations can start their own online biomedical research journals, which it will underwrite financially, using its new journal publishing strategy. BioMed Central also announced that it would deposit e-journals with the British Library. This deposit would take effect as soon as the necessary system architecture was in place at the Library. At October 2001's Frankfurt Book Fair, the head of the British Library told STM publishers that the library had surveyed 20,000 business, science, and medical users and learned from the 5,000 responses that customers want a single point of entry to all information. Based on the survey, the library is working with IBM to set up a digital library store and "outlicense" the collection. Customers would pay for journal articles they want, not subscribe to journals. The British Library head talked "partnership and cooperation" with publishers and said that she didn't think this initiative would compete with subscriptions.

Scholars Themselves Join the Fray
In the fall of 2000, with both BioMed Central and PubMed Central on the scene, a group of bioscientists, several of whom had been involved in the development of PubMed Central, including Varmus (You could hear the publishers scream, "He's baaaack!") and new PubMed Central chief, David Lipman, initiated another strategy to achieve free access to the literature. Echoing Varmus's words, the group took the name Public Library of Science [], and developed an open letter that they began circulating by e-mail to scientists around the world. "We recognize." the letter states, "that the publishers of our scientific journals have a legitimate right to a fair financial return for their role in scientific communication. We believe, however, that the permanent, archival record of scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public and should be freely available through an international online public library. 

"To encourage the publishers of our journals to support this endeavor, we pledge that beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to, only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources within 6 months of their initial publication date."

There would be no hedging this demand. Two PLoS founders put their views in no uncertain terms, according to SPARC E-News: "Should the reward for the publishers' small contributions be permanent, private ownership of the published record of scientific research, and monopoly control over how, when, and by whom a paper can be read or used and how much this access will cost? No!" In April 2001, Mark Ward, BBC News Online technology correspondent, quoted Dr. Michael Ashburner of the PLoS Group: "[The library] may not happen this year, but it is going to happen because the technology is there and scientists will demand it. This movement is not going to stop, no matter how much the publishers scream." 

When the Library Journal Academic Newswire learned about the open letter, it reported, in its Book Report for October 26, 2000, that 13 prominent scientists (in addition to Varmus and Lipman, 10 were from Stanford and one from Berkeley) had signed the letter. LJ asked Elsevier's unflappable Karen Hunter the question, "Is a boycott of popular journals in the sciences really on the horizon?" "'They are certainly within their rights to do that,' she answered. 'But I don't think they'll find much support.'" The Book Report noted, "Hunter sympathizes with issues of archivability and says she is currently negotiating to participate in an archiving program. Hunter is skeptical of any plan to collect research in one central, free library. 'Who would fund it? Government?' she asks. 'The fundraising of government is so volatile, the priorities of government shift.' Hunter says that competition in science publishing, both commercial and noncommercial, is essential to innovation. 'Competition is useful,' she says. 'It facilitates new developments.'"

In the March 23, 2001, issue of Science, its editors cautioned that the PLoS proposal would put not-for-profit scholarly publishers at risk because it would "reroute an economically important source of online traffic for journals that offer content and other products on their sites." Science did agree to make its reports and articles available free on its Web site, which uses the services of Stanford's HighWire Press to host the archive, 12 months after print issues are published. Around the same time, another HighWire client, The Journal of Cell Biology, made its contents freely available on its Web site 6 months after each issue's publication. In support of this decision, editor-in-chief Ira Melman issued a statement, "[t]he ability to search across thousands of servers, as long as those servers do not have access controls, is the very reason that the Web is such a powerful tool."

A PLoS response to this news was posted on its Web site: "[W]e urge our scientific colleagues to demand that their societies and journals disclose their full financial records so that we can give fair consideration to the financial arrangements that Science and other journals might offer against our proposal." Better financial understanding might help calm the waters. A university press publisher I contacted for this article noted "a tendency among scholars to be unrealistic about costs in communications. It's a question of recognizing what actual costs in the process are." Perhaps scholar relations committees, along the lines of the library relations committees, might help, although neither publishers nor scholars have time on their hands. 

Societies, whose members sit on publications committees and presumably already know about the finances of their publications, and whose members presumably decide what do with any profits, had a sharp response to PLoS. The FASEB board "denounced" what it called the PLoS "coercive effort": "FASEB encourages debate on how best to improve the electronic publishing of, and access to, peer-reviewed scientific papers. However, practicing scientists and their representative organizations must be allowed to engage in constructive discussion in an atmosphere that is respectful and free from coercion." The American Society for Microbiology said it found the PLoS aims "too extreme and unrealistic for ASM to support." 

By the fall of 2001, over 28,000 life scientists had signed the open letter, and it is having some effect, even though, according to a couple of the publishers I spoke with, only a couple of thousand signatories are based in the U.S. According to one society publisher, "Even though only one reviewer has stopped reviewing for one of our journals because of our position on PLoS, it is having a strong influence on pricing of our journal archive whether there should be a price or not, that is, should articles be free x number of months or years after publication?"

The issue of the locations of PLoS signers came up in another of my conversations: "A large percentage of research comes from outside the U.S. What percentage of PLoS signers come from the developing world? They face harsher economic realities than our scientists do, so they tend to benefit more if PLoS succeeds." 

In any case, PLoS rhetoric leaves publishers shaking their heads. "There are a few people who have a particular idea they're trying to push," a commercial publisher told me. "Most of the other scholars who've signed the PLoS open letter haven't thought about the issue in depth." A society publisher called PLoS "a group of well-meaning zealots, who are misguided in their tactics. They're small in number. Almost all are in the life sciences. People in other parts of the sciences are out of sympathy with them and find them irrelevant."

Another society publisher said that "money made on publications published by societies is used for other society activities. I don't know where PLoS is going. Looks like it's stalled. Only 2,500 signatories from the U.S. They're mostly researchers in the life sciences. Most clinicians have other things to do with their time. Journal publishing isn't such a big pressure point in medicine. Boycotts or petitions should be about humanitarian issues. There's no evidence that medical practice suffers from journal publishing practices."

Publishers are doing something about the costs of their publications in poor nations. In July, the Times reported that the major publishers of about 80 percent of medical journals (Academic, Blackwell, Elsevier, Kluwer, Springer, and Wiley) were expected to announce an agreement to provide researchers in developing countries with online access to their publications free or at sharply reduced prices. 

And publishers seem to be doing something about archiving, which isn't a simple problem for them to solve. A university press publisher acknowledged that "centralized archives for back volumes is an issue that has to be addressed, especially for society journals that shift publishers from time to time. But, it ain't free. Formats change, and all versions are not backward compatible, as well." This year, the Harvard University Library announced that it will partner with Blackwell, Wiley, and the University of Chicago Press to develop an experimental archive for electronic journals. The long-term venture is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has already awarded a $145,000 grant to Harvard for the planning of an electronic journal archive, according to Library Journal Academic Newswire. In February 2001, the Yale University Library announced its own Mellon-funded agreement with Elsevier to develop a model electronic archive.

One of the commercial publishers I spoke with offered this perspective: "Archives exist in print form in many, many places. They're free to those people who can get to them. Or you can get material through ILL. It would be very nice if all archives were freely available, and it is an irresistible movement. But can they be totally free? They do cost someone money. Archives will have to be put in an overall business context. Our experience in the last 3 years is that libraries are quite willing to pay to acquire backfiles as a way of avoiding ILL costs, among other things." 

Recently, PLoS announced that it is considering publishing journals with original research papers, timely reviews, essays, and commentary online. The plan has not yet been launched publicly, but under initial proposals, journals would be published online with page charges and institutional charges covering the estimated cost per manuscript, expected to be approximately $300 per published article. Costs would be subsidized for authors who cannot afford charges. PLoS announced that it had already negotiated tentative terms of a service contract with an "established online publisher."

Also, according to PLoS, "It is now clear that if we really want to change the publication of scientific research, we must do the publishing ourselves. It is time for us to work together to create the journals we have called for. We are working to establish a nonprofit scientific publisher under the banner of the Public Library of Science, operated by scientists, for the benefit of science and the public."

"Whether a researcher-created publication will be successful is open to question," a publisher told me flatly. "People pushing for these new systems are sitting on tenure committees. They give more weight to high-impact journals. They won't give publications in electronic media the same consideration. Researchers have an informal rating system. They believe that you can get something published if you try long and hard enough."

"The publishing industry is extremely skeptical as to how PLoS is going to pull anything off," a publisher told me in early September 2001. "They're unlikely to be successful, although they could shake hands with Vitek. He could provide infrastructure, business acumen, marketing, etc. Vitek could put this together."

It turns out that the "established online publisher" that PLoS referred to is apparently Vitek's BioMed Central, which in an October 2001 press release, after stating that it embraced the goals of PLoS, announced that it is receiving submissions from "[m]any scientists who signed the PloS open letter [and] are actively supporting open-access publishers like BioMed Central; Uta Franke from Stanford University, one of the hundreds of authors who submit their research to BioMed Central each month, comments; 'This is my first submission to BioMed Central and I am quite excited about it. As a signer of the PLoS open letter, I am taking seriously the commitment I made to support the goals of the PLoS movement.'"

The BioMed Central press release went on to state that "[t]here has been little in the way of response from the big scientific and medical publishers since the boycott was imposed on September 1st. One of the few publishers to comment is the CEO of Elsevier Science, Derk Haank, who believes there is no evidence of a boycott. However, this comment was made barely a week after the boycott began.

"We welcome the actions of scientists like Uta Franke who vote with their submissions and eagerly await the real effect of the growing support for 'open-access' which is being demonstrated by the increasing number of scientists signing the PloS open letter." 

Another Player, Another Business Model
A commercial secondary publishing executive I spoke with in summer 2001 mentioned "an upstart Florida company which sells biological equipment to laboratories" as a threat to established secondary publishers, because the Florida company, in his opinion, used its abstracting and indexing service as a loss leader and undercut the traditional abstract service publisher. The company, TheScientificWorld [], which was incorporated in May, 1999 by Eric Tomlinson and Jeff Hillier, has about 60 employees and has raised $20.5 million. TheScientificWorld started in fall 1999 with both a purchasing service of scientific supplies and equipment through an arrangement with Fisher Scientific and other suppliers of biological resources, as well as a citation collection. Called sciBASE, the citation and abstract service offers free searching that covers journal literature and conferences from sources such as MEDLINE, the British Library (for conferences), BIOSIS, CAB Abstracts, and PASCAL from INIST-CNRS. sciBASE is linked to a fee-based full-text delivery service with 500 journals from publishers including IOS Press, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, Blackwell Scientific, Taylor and Francis, and Mary Ann Liebert. Among other services, TheScientificWorld also offers users a personal news page made up of news and feature articles, plus an alerting service covering publications, meeting announcements, and news.

In April 2001, TheScientificWorld began to compete not only with established primary publishers, but also with Vitek's BioMed Central, when it started a multidisciplinary, life and environmental sciences, peer-reviewed, online journal, TheScientificWorldJOURNAL. The Webzine is site-license-based, but will make the full text of its articles free of charge through public online libraries (e.g., PubMed Central) after 12 months. Authors will retain copyright in their work, and, if either they or sponsors pay a "a commercially viable publication fee," their articles will be offered free of charge in the first year of publication. TheScientificWorld announced that it would archive the articles in its journal permanently. It was Vitek-with-a-twist. 

TheScientificWorld recruited scholars to aid in the development of the new journal, which Jeff Hillier called a "groundbreaking effort." An October 2001 press release announced that TheScientificWorldJOURNAL had reached agreements with more than 350 scientists to serve as principal editors, associate editors, and editorial board members. "This editorial network," the press release stated, "guides the direction of TheScientificWorldJOURNAL and ensures all submitted scientific work undergoes rigorous peer review." 

More Rebellions
"SPARC gets two or three calls a month from journal editorial boards," SPARC's Alison Buckholtz told me recently. "They have questions about serving their communities, subscription pricing, whether authors can retain rights to their papers, speed of production, and values because of all the outsourcing, older editors feel their publishers aren't as friendly as they used to be. Older editors can be bigger risk takers than the younger ones. They'll consider an alternative journal, which takes a long time to get up and running, if they're not getting the value from their relationship with an established publisher, if it's not about their community any more. Where are the prices going, are the journal's policies changing? They want lower prices. That would enable access from the start."

On his proselytizing Web site, Michael Rosenzweig presents his rationale for why he quit as the editor of a Kluwer journal and started his own SPARC-sponsored alternative and why he encourages other editors to follow his lead. To date, there are, as far as I know, just two well-publicized instances of editorial boards picking up and leaving a commercially published journal.

In November 1999, the complete editorial board (50 editors in total) of Elsevier's Journal of Logic Programming (JLP) collectively resigned after 16 months of unsuccessful negotiations about the price of library subscriptions. They founded a new journal, Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (TPLP) with Cambridge University Press, with the first issue scheduled for January 2001. The Association for Logic Programming (ALP) withdrew its support for the JLP and adopted TPLP as its sole official journal, and several authors withdrew their submissions to the JLP and resubmitted them to TPLP

The former editors agreed to keep their names on the JLP masthead until the end of 2000, the moment when all their JLP papers were to have been published. Elsevier decided to continue the JLP with another editorial board. The former board did not leave quietly. Their resignation announcement stated that "[t]he Association, the former editors, and the logic programming community strongly believe that there is support for only one logic programming journal."

Recently, 40 people resigned from the editorial board of Kluwer's Machine Learning Journal (MLJ) to lend their support to the alternative publication, Machine Learning Research. Their letter of resignation, which SPARC circulated, asserted that they had resigned over the Kluwer journal's pricing level: 

While these fees provide access for institutions and individuals who can afford them, we feel that they also have the effect of limiting contact between the current machine learning community and the potentially much larger community of researchers worldwide whose participation in our field should be the fruit of the modern Internet.

None of the revenue stream from the journal makes its way back to authors, and in this context authors should expect a particularly favorable return on their intellectual contribution they should expect a service that maximizes the distribution of their work. We see little benefit accruing to our community from a mechanism that ensures revenue for a third party by restricting the communication channel between authors and readers.

According to Information Today, Kluwer issued a press release about MLJ to respond to this situation. It read in part: 

Kluwer Academic Publishers will continue its full support of the artificial intelligence community and Machine Learning. Kluwer's commitment to the Machine Learning community includes: 

  • Posting of accepted articles for free on the journal's Web site immediately upon acceptance 
  • Encouraging authors to post their papers on their own Web site, prior to and after publication 
  • Serving our editors, authors, and reviewers with an electronic reviewing system 
  • Providing services from promotion to copyediting to distribution that ensure their work will reach the community, and reach it with a professional presentation 
  • Representing the journal at conferences across all of computer science, exposing it to communities outside of machine learning 
  • Maintaining the current individual subscription price of $120 
  • Including in the 2002 volumes over 15 percent more content with a less than 5 percent price increase to libraries.
"Well, the journal editors we talk with aren't jumping up and down," a commercial publisher told me. "We can still provide satisfactory answers to their questions. What is the set of services the publishers are offering? Are authors happy with them? Can anyone do better?"

Another commercial publisher said that "quite a few people have been persuaded that publishers are overcharging, but most people in research are too busy and realize that the costs of publication are a very small fraction of the costs of doing research. At best one is talking only about reducing the cost, not eliminating it. The only argument is about the margin." 

The fact of SPARC's existence has had an effect on a commercial publisher's pricing policies in another case. Last year, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), which publishes the American Journal of Physical Anthropology with Wiley, announced a new publishing agreement, under which Wiley reduced the institutional subscription rate from $2,085 to $1,390 per year, offered a second institutional subscription at 20 percent of the full rate, and initiated a special rate for lapsed or new non-member subscribers. 

Dr. Jonathan Friedlaender, chair of the Publications Committee for the AAPA and a professor of Anthropology at Temple University, credited SPARC's existence as a critical factor in negotiating the successful agreement. "SPARC's activities and counsel played an essential role in our successful negotiations with our journal's publisher (and owner)," he said. "SPARC helped educate us on the history and present condition of academic journal publishing; they offered informed opinions on what they thought the future held in store; and, probably most importantly, the publisher knew we'd been in contact with SPARC and were considering their advice of starting a competing journal. Both our journal and association stand to benefit substantially by the contract." 

STM publishers are not sitting on their hands. In summer 2001, the executive council of the AAP's PSP Division decided to move ahead with an image campaign promoting the positive aspects of traditional professional and scholarly publishing through print, media, and electronic channels directed to library, academic, and other user constituencies. An RFP has been sent to a number of public relations, advertising, and publicity firms.

Publishers Face a Changing World
"These aren't non-issues," a society publisher told me, "because people are worked up about them. But you can't single out publishers as the lone bandits who make profits from research. What about the oil companies and the pharmaceuticals? Suppose everything were free online," this publisher went on. "Eventually, someone would come along and say, 'This is a mess,' and would replace it with a publication or system with an article selection system. Good can come of this. Publishers will get moving to show their value."

A commercial publisher sounded a cautionary tone: 

The alternative initiatives are a threat to traditional publishers, although the non-profits will find it easier to meet the threat. SPARC and PLoS are threats. Their threat isn't going to develop overnight, but it's real in the long run, driven by enablements of the technological revolution. The situation isn't threatening now, but 10 years from now it will look very different. The margins of the commercial publishers won't be sustainable. They'll need to offer new services. Societies may have to put more pressure on dues. Commercial publishers will have to offer new services and may have to adjust their profit expectations. They'll have to find other revenue streams not directly tied to journals handbooks, numerical databases, targeted niche services to researchers that will save time and money. 

For purely bibliographic database vendors in the long run I don't see that they're going to be needed once everything is available online and everything is tied together. I think there will be a problem there. All intermediaries will be under threat. I recognize that PLoS wants to preserve the peer-review system. So we're still going to have hierarchies of experts. An Eprint server will submit a paper to a board, but the moment the paper is accepted, a switch is flipped, and publication time is cut to zero. Distribution time reduced to zero. Now couple this with well-thought-out author tools. 

"We're in a period of transition in a totally different world with fundamental changes," another commercial publishing executive told me. "There will be a significant change in scholarly communication in the next decade A lot more will be gotten out of the information what you can do with the text that the abstract doesn't cover. The standard article won't go away. It will get richer. There will be added data. The traditional journal will evolve. The need for refereed information is still strong. The journal isn't doomed. It will become a piece in a much more sophisticated information system. Our company takes seriously the fact that things are changing. 

"Who's going to do all this? It should be the publishers. It's a waste of time for the scientists themselves. When should stuff be made available to the world? That's still a role for publishers."

"There's certainly no panic on the publishers' side," another commercial publisher told me. "The journal culture peer review, tenure is going to change very slowly."

What's Next?
Well, there you have it. Three years of scholars' involvement in the STM journals war, call the involvement what you will, 3 years of initiatives, 3 years of press releases, 3 years of acrimony. Three years of Varmus, Vitek, and venting. 

There was one major mistake. For whatever reason, whether because of lack of awareness, or arrogance, or too much time spent too near the NLM staff member who told me years ago that "publishers are thieves," Varmus refused to recognize that there are not-for-profit publishers, most of them learned societies, and there are commercial publishers, and there are differences between the two of them. It's one thing to go into battle against commercial enterprises people do it all the time, after all but it's quite another thing to do something that might harm an organization that exists to do good, and has a tax exemption to prove it, and makes money to further its noble aims, self-proclaimed though they may be. So PubMed Central had to be reined in, lest it tramples what are, in essence, scholars' own publishing programs, carried out by the societies they govern. 

BioMed Central and TheScientificWorld may be making the same mistake. And despite their garnering scholars' editorial participation, those same scholars may become concerned that these commercial enterprises could be acquired some day by established commercial publishers, the same publishers some scholars are trying to avoid. In addition, it remains to be seen whether online publication with commercial enterprises guarantees the status and permanence that the academy requires, no matter what arrangements the enterprises have with PubMed Central or the British Library. 

We can expect more press releases. SPARC has a well-oiled machine for generating them itself, and the AAP's PSP Division, as noted earlier, is undertaking its own image campaign. BioMed Central is playing the press release game hard, and TheScientificWorld has a PR firm actively representing its interests. Don't expect the PubMed Central people to fall silent. The battle for the hearts and minds of scholars will continue to be waged fiercely. 

SPARC's alternative journals program is off to a good start, but its growth potential remains questionable. There is a lot of inertia in the journal-publishing system, so I don't expect an explosion in the number of SPARC alternative journals. And I don't know of a single commercially published journal that has folded yet, although, as noted, there is at least one case of a subscription price reduction. It's safe to predict, however, that SPARC will have more and more successes, though limited in number. 

As for the PLoS undertaking publishing on its own, that possibility is a non-starter, in my opinion, unless the writing of grant proposals, and everything else a scholar has to do just to survive, becomes much less time consuming. Publishing may be an accidental profession, but getting it right takes expertise and persistence. Finishing a paper and pressing the send button doesn't mean you've published it. But a PLoS fear factor could very well have an effect on archiving policies throughout STM publishing. 

It's time for their adversaries, if they haven't done so already, to recognize that STM publishers drive scholarship in a major way. Everyone knows that not every paper is worthy of publication, but the journals business does provide wide distribution of the papers worth publishing. The question is, as it always has been, is the distribution wide enough? 

It is also time for the STM publishers, if they haven't done so already, to recognize that libraries' financial position may now be getting tenuous, given the condition of the global economy, and to continue to encourage and accommodate more consortial arrangements. Even the moderating of price increases and a resulting moderating of profits might have to be considered, as difficult as that may be for shareholders and boards of directors to swallow. 

Established STM publishers, as they have shown, do have the money and the will to innovate, to use the Internet to everyone's advantage, and they would do well to continue to recognize that it is in their own interests, as well as everyone else's, that they continue to do so. Rebellions do have a way of getting out of hand, or of founding new and better alternatives, depending on your perspective. Publishers would do well to remember that at the beginning and end of the journal-publishing process is an author or an editor, and the relationship between publisher and author or editor is vital. 

The late Robert Maxwell, of dastardly reputation, who nevertheless was a major player in the postwar rise of commercial STM journals publishing, was well aware of the relationship, to judge by an anecdote dating to a period long after he had left his journal publishing operations in the hands of his employees. After a problem with the editors of a journal that Maxwell himself had started in the early days had spun out of the control, it was Maxwell who got the editors on the phone and "knocked heads" until the problem was resolved. After many years, apparently, an old relationship between publisher and editors was what really mattered. 
What Can Librarians Do?

SPARC's creator, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) a non-voting member of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers, the trade association that represents the interests of both commercial and not-for-profit publishers is a staunch supporter of PLoS and PubMed Central, although critical of the latter's evolution. In the summer of 2001, as the PLoS deadline approached, Mary Case, head of ARL's Office of Scholarly Communication, writing on the SPARC Web site, acknowledged that:

...small society publishers are concerned that in disciplines where the drop-off in use over time is gradual, libraries will depend on the free access provided through the central archives rather than subscribe. In those cases, the journal may either have to cease publication or significantly increase the subscription price to its remaining subscribers.... Libraries could reduce the risk for societies by pledging to continue to subscribe to society titles that make their content available for free after 6 months and keep their prices at reasonable levels.

Case called on the members of her association and profession to be more assertive:

Libraries can also help in a number of other ways. First, find out who on your campus has already signed the Open Letter. Names and institutions are available on the PLoS Web site. Talk with these faculty, listen to their rationale, and encourage them to talk with others in their departments. Second, provide the entire biomedical and life sciences faculty with information about the PLoS and issues in scholarly communication. Provide the names of their colleagues who have signed the letter and may be willing to discuss it with them. 

Third, be prepared to provide or suggest alternative venues for faculty to publish in as of September 1. If publishers believe faculty have no other options, they have no real incentive to change their practices. Publishers can wait until September 1 and see what happens when 23,700+ scientists suddenly have nowhere to submit their papers. While you want to be sure to keep track of the publishers that have joined PMC, they may not on their own be able to absorb all of the new submissions. The leadership group of the PLoS has recognized this dilemma and is in the process of seeking out alternative publishing vehicles. In the meantime, it is important to explore with your faculty the possibility of setting up independent editorial boards. The PMC will accept submissions from such groups as long as three members of the board are currently principal investigators on research grants from major funding agencies. The library could play an important role in supporting the formation of such new "journals" and providing technical support and infrastructure. 

Another important action the library can take is to cancel titles that do not agree to support the goals of the PLoS. If your faculty have signed the Open Letter and alternative journals are launched, it is time to cancel those that choose to ignore the interests of the scientists they are intended to serve.

SPARC has two Web-based initiatives devoted to faculty outreach. At the beginning of last year, SPARC and ARL's Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) launched "Create Change," a year-long campaign focused on reaching faculty through contact with librarians. Create Change is now a Web site with resources for both faculty and librarians. It is co-sponsored by ARL, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and SPARC, with support from the little known (at least to me) Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which Mrs. Delmas founded in 1976 to encourage an intellectual interest in Venetian history and civilization. So why the SPARC contribution? According to the foundation's Web site, with contributions from the estate of Mrs. Delmas's husband, a publisher and businessman, in 1988, and her own estate, in 1991, the foundation expanded its interests to include the humanities, research libraries, and the performing arts in New York City. [Emphasis added.] 

In early January 2001, SPARC and the Triangle Research Libraries Network (TRLN) launched Declaring Independence: A Guide to Creating Community-Controlled Science Journals and formally unveiled the initiative during ALA. Declaring Independence is a Web site [] and a print handbook that approaches journals editors and editorial boards directly.

Myer Kutz has been an independent publishing consultant and engineering handbook packager since January 1990. Previously, he worked as a mechanical engineer, wrote books and magazine articles, and worked for 13 years at Wiley as an editor, founder of a pre-Internet electronic publishing division in 1981, and general manager of professional scientific and technical publishing. He chaired the publications committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, chaired the AAP's copyright committee and PSP executive council (he currently edits the PSP Division Newsletter), and serves on the board of OCLC. He can be reached at 518-432-0992 or
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
© 2002