Moving digits in serials life.

Author:Sens, Jean-Mark


Publishing electronically allows fast, easy, and widespread dissemination of information, it lowers the cost of editing, and it allows content to be stored in a way that complements and rivals the traditional paper format. The World Wide Web has created expectations for free, instant and unmediated communication between writers and readers. It led journal editors, librarians, and readers to believe that scholarly journals, in the sciences and other areas, would become cheaper through widespread digitization. A brief reality check paints a different picture, with serial price inflation approaching 10% per year (almost five times the US Consumer Price Index) as reported by EBSCO (1), and by Library Journal (2).

Naively, one may ask,

What are the reasons for such galloping costs?

Is it sustainable?

Is it brought by online access versus the traditional print serials?

What are the economic factors contributing to this phenomenon?

How is it shaping scholarly publication and information dissemination?

This article looks at those questions and some possible answers.

Serial Pricing

Prices are generally much higher in the sciences than in social science, arts and humanities, and so the question of how to control prices and to create some viable alternatives has mostly focused on science journals. The average cost per title for 2003 of $ 2,403 for a chemistry journal marks a 42.79% price increase from 1999 to 2003. This compares to an average cost of only $305.73 in the field of education, although prices in that area increased 47.13% during the same period (2).

Scholarly Publishing

The scholarly community has noted that electronic publishing has not come with a lower price for academic institutions. In the migration from print to electronic resources, libraries have tried to maintain both formats. And rightly so, since many scholars directly involved in e-publishing see the current situation as transitional, with the necessity for developing multiple options for publishing. In this transition, e-publishing may have the salutary effect of making readers and writers revisit some of the assumptions and workings of scholarly communication.

Even in the world of print, the issues of price, reliability, access, and long term dissemination of knowledge were not just a matter of creating the physical periodicals, but also of establishing credibility for them. JSTOR (, Ohio State University's OSU Knowledge Bank (, ISI Web of Knowledge (, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (, Budapest Open Access Initiative (, Public Library of Science (PLoS) (, Project MUSE (, and even key players in commercial publishing such as Elsevier, Wolter-Kluwer, and Wiley show some major convergence in trying to make information available to the scholarly community. Access costs, fees charged to information providers, and long-term retrieval are some of the key issues.

Electronic publication does not really revolutionize scholarly publication but accentuates some of the existing tensions in terms of fluctuating prices, durability, duplication of information, innovation and obsolescence related to the transient life of serials. Publications in electronic format continue to grow on the traditions of higher education institutions and scholarly communities with their various societies and initiatives both in the private and public sectors. Sally Morris, Secretary-General of Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) reflects on the current trend: "What is lacking at the moment, however, is a coordinated way of representing the distinctive views of not-for-profit publishers worldwide." (3)

An attractive aspect of e-publishing has been the possibility for academic publishers to reduce the time and cost associated with selecting, editing, and laying out articles for their journals and to incorporate interactive displays integrating sounds and images. Such change offers the possibility to scholarly societies of do-it-yourself archiving and diffusion of published materials that is unprecedented.

Although the structure of scholarly communication that gives authority and validity to published materials remains largely the same due to the essential sense of continuity that scholarly communities try to foster, two major changes have emerged with e-publishing. One...

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