Journal costs pose frustrating puzzle at WSU and worldwide

University faculty and students are finding it more difficult to access information they need because of the increasing costs, and subsequent campus cancellations, of subscriptions to scholarly journals. Though worldwide in scope, the problem is intimately known to individuals at WSU.

“When we develop new courses or areas of scholarship, it is extremely difficult to get new journals in the relevant field,” said Paul Brians, professor of English at WSU. “For years WSU did not offer film courses, and subscriptions to most of the film journals were cut. Now we have a growing film studies program, but there are huge gaps in our holdings.

“In the humanities, it is crucial to have access to older scholarship,” he said. “Whereas in many fields (the sciences, for example) only the latest research is important, the humanities range back through the decades. The gaps become very troublesome, even if we resume a subscription.”

The expected average journal inflation rate for 2005 titles is 9.4 percent, said Lynn Chmelir, assistant director-collections and technical services for WSU Libraries. That’s far higher, for example, than the U.S. yearly average inflation, which hasn’t been more than 6 percent since 1982 and more recently has hovered around 2 or 3 percent. Journal costs have risen more than 227 percent since 1986, according to a survey by the Association of Research Libraries.

While costs have skyrocketed, university budgets have not. In response, WSU Libraries canceled 241 journal titles for 2005, for a savings of $280,794. Most of these were in the science disciplines. Many humanities and social sciences titles already had been canceled in 2004, said Libraries director Ginny Steel, for a savings of $240,397.

“The whole system to widely disseminate the results of faculty research and scholarship is broken and needs fundamental change,” Steel said. “Even the most affluent universities are caught in this bind.”

And the most prestigious scientists and politicians are trying to find solutions for untying the knots.

Some suggested solutions
Last August, 25 Nobel Prize-winning scientists called on the U.S. government to make all taxpayer-funded research papers available for free. In response to recommendations by a Congressional committee, the National Institutes of Health in September proposed requiring researchers who receive NIH grants to allow the NIH to post their reports to a free online archive within six months.

Again, WSU is trying to tackle the problem in ways that work best here. In addition to the cuts mentioned above, the Libraries choose and make links to a multitude of free (“open-access”) online journals, so that faculty and students can gain easy access to them from the Libraries’ online catalog. They also maintain a website about scholarly communication (

“We get notices of new open-access publications all the time,” Chmelir said. “Our liaison librarians assess them according to whether that discipline is offered at WSU and according to various criteria to determine their quality.”

The Libraries also switched some journals from print to electronic-only format for a savings of $66,330 for 2004 and 2005.

However, “when you switch from print you don’t save that much,” Steel said. “Maybe it’s 17 percent.”

Some of that savings is on sales tax, for example, which is assessed on print journals but not online. Conversely, if a journal is known for its large, colorful and integral graphics, the Libraries try to keep it in print, which is a better format than electronic for reading the graphics.

Other criteria used to determine cancellations include the prestige of a journal and also its cost per use, Steel said. For example, the most expensive journal WSU subscribes to is a seven-section package of Brain Research, which cost $18,683 in 2004. However, because it was used 2,254 times, its cost per use is relatively low — $8.29 per use.

Such decisions and cutbacks understandably cause concern.

“Our librarians consult with faculty to be sure they give their input,” Chmelir said.

Nonetheless, “we get a whole range of reactions from faculty,” Steel said. “Primarily, we want them to understand that this isn’t just a Libraries problem.”

“And that we’re here to support their academic programs,” Chmelir added.

Will these ideas work?
Gaining less support, at least from some quarters, are the ideas put forth by the NIH and others to make research reports freely available to all.

Critics say that, though online might be cheaper than print information, it still will cost something, and someone will pay. The most talked about “someone” is research authors, who would pay to be published.

And critics doubt that large commercial publishers — some of whom post profits as high as 40 percent — will be willing to make less than the levels to which they’ve grown accustomed. They may shift costs from subscribing researchers to supplying researchers, but universities still would pay for their faculty to be published either way.

Others are concerned that an emphasis on immediate reader access would sacrifice the time and deliberation required to maintain quality through the peer review and editing process.

Besides, Steel said, the NIH proposal doesn’t really call for immediate access. It stipulates that research results be available after six months.

“But our faculty need that information right away,” she said. “That won’t save our libraries money,” because they still will need to subscribe to journals that would provide information immediately.

Still others don’t see that there’s a problem. The British government, for example, in November rejected recommendations from an internal committee to support free online access to state-supported research results. The government responded that it wasn’t aware of major problems in accessing scientific information, that each university should make its own decisions about establishing its own digital archives, and that the publishing industry is healthy and competitive and therefore requires no intervention.

“They’re obviously kowtowing to the industry,” said one committee member.

Indeed, according to one opinion printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October, the only way to solve the problem is for scholars and librarians to cease dealing in any capacity with high-priced journals. But that is difficult to do if faculty need them for their research.

“Soon the publishers of less expensive (usually independent or scholarly society) journals will grow, and those of more expensive (commercial conglomerate) journals will decline,” wrote John H. Ewing, executive director of the American Mathematical Society.

Such a change won’t be easy, he admitted, “but it is far more likely to solve the problem of prices than changing the way we collect the money.”

More solutions
Other ways of coping with the problem are ongoing at WSU.

Steel said the WSU Libraries, along with other research libraries, are in favor of the NIH proposal because it is a step in the right direction.

She has spoken with college deans about making faculty more aware of the fact that when they sign a copyright agreement, especially with a commercial publisher, they are often signing over their right to their own material, and maybe that’s not really something they want to do.

She also has spoken with deans to encourage them to raise the issue of scholarly journal costs and access with faculty in their colleges.

In addition, “WSU wants to establish an institutional repository for our own faculty,” Chmelir said. A repository is an electronic archive for submitting and retrieving research papers. Cornell University has sponsored one such repository, especially for physics and related disciplines, since 1991. It can be found at Other institutions, like MIT and CalTech, have repositories for the research published by their faculty members.

“We would plan to partner with WSU Information Technology to develop a site that’s easy for faculty to work with,” Steel said. “There would be questions of publication quality, long-term preservation of research information, and how to search the site,” among others, she said.

“We also are trying to leverage our purchasing power,” Chmelir said, via participation in “buying clubs;” i.e., consortia with other libraries that can arrange to buy in bulk from publishers in order to get a better price.

WSU Libraries also is participating in the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and with various library and open-access publishers that are trying to change how the system works. More can be found at

Most recently, Chmelir met in December with the Faculty Association for Scholarship and Research at WSU and served on a panel of librarians discussing journal cost and access. She said it was clear from the wide-ranging discussion that librarians need to talk more with faculty about who pays for electronic journals, the differences between individual and institutional subscription rates, how inflation affects serials budgets, and what alternatives there are in scholarly publishing.

“The more faculty are involved, the better for us and for WSU,” Steel said. “There isn’t yet a good model for dealing with this. This is not an issue that will be resolved anytime soon.”

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