Golden Geese or Dead Ducks? Academic Libraries and the Access to Scientific Research


In an October 1997 Educom address in the USA, Professor Eli Noam, the Director of Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information, predicted that faculty members and scholars would in the near future read the latest journal articles on line, become the publishers of their own research findings and create multimedia presentations that will help students learn faster and more efficiently.

Is this likely to happen given the present state of increasing monopolisation of science content in print and on the Net? Certainly something seems as though it will have to give, particularly given the Reed Elsevier group increasing their acquisition of medical, science and technology material.

The commercial market shows little public sign of acknowledging the strains on libraries as prices continue to escalate on an annual basis. Each issue of the influential Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues ricochets around the globe on the Net fuelling globally collective concerns. The US Consortia of Consortia (COC) is slowly flexing its muscle and has had some impact on restraining import price rises.

The perennially debated issues in scholarly communication as we near the end of the twentieth century include the following:

• who controls intellectual property? The author or the publisher? Academics worldwide by and large "give away" their research output often carried out in "normal" work hours and then libraries buy it back with increasing difficulty because of annual publishing inflation and declining resources.

• How is article provision on the Net costed at "reasonable" levels?

• National mirror sites are preferable. It is not necessarily much more costly to go to overseas sites but the response and access time can vary enormously as Academic Press found in 1997 and early 1998.

  • Does electronic licensing inhibit fair use?

• Document access and supply directly to the desk top is a generic requirement.

• what value does a publisher add both intellectually and financially, particularly in an electronic environment?

• E Publishing can mean direct selling to libraries, to individuals. This can be on a "pay for look" basis and be accessed by a variety of increasingly complex and ?perverse mechanisms.

• costs are increasingly rising for science print and electronic journals while most library budgets in the Western world (especially outside of the USA) are declining in real terms. There is a need for common action locally and internationally as evidenced in recent US and European initiatives.

• Costs could reduce if information is provided in reasonably priced "electronic blocks"

• library staff need to be more aware of the complexities of electronic access especially access issues, rights and consortia deals which traverse the whole library rather than compartmentalised segments. New library structures need to evolve

  • Full text is the name of the electronic game not the cataloguing of the outside of a book

• Value added access will be the model rather than the simple replication of print journal articles

• Should there be a differential pricing for different types of material eg. follow airline pricing? Will users pay advance, economy, business and first class for information access?

  • Should cheaper pricing to individuals and "excessive" pricing to institutions continue? Is the role of academic societies as publishers changing?
  • We need to continue to evaluate continually electronic costs v print costs. Is EPIC - Electronic Publishing Cheaper?

• can academics/academic societies to provide Net "ratings" for refereeing

• most publishers seem unsure how to price electronic material

• the major publisher profit makers often squeeze out other publishers offerings when libraries make cuts - will librarians make more of a distinction between high cost - high use journals and high cost - low use? In that context how many libraries/universities have really measured the "productivity" of print journals?

• How, in fact, do scientists use journals? Has any academic user group really evaluated scientific periodical use systematically over a long period? Remember the furore of the Pittsburgh study of the 1970's!

  • what happens to user behaviour when texts migrate to the Net?
  • should universities publish and market their own intellectual creativity? Highwire Press/Stanford model. Columbia University Press has created Columbia International Affairs Online (CIAO) to publish material eg. electronic monographs, working papers, conference papers from forty institutions. Is this a model for other universities to follow?

The problem/issues are global. The question will the result be partnership, competition or perish with the global monopolies grinding the academic libraries down, certainly in Australia which has seen in 1997 a 16% currency drop and publisher inflation predicted for 1998 of 13% - 20%.

The Future of the Scientific Journal

David Pullinger, the electronic publisher for Nature has stated the following in the very interesting Web development "Next Wave Electronic Publishing in Science":- (

"The "journal" in the future will be the following:

  • an information store of scientific data, records, or communications
  • an editorial policy that is articulated, whether that means everything is accepted (e.g., LANL HEPTH preprint server) or that there are tough criteria (e.g., Physical Review Letters, Nature, Cell, Science, etc.) This might be conducted via anonymous or named peer review, voting or by usage;
  • a means of accessing the information, whether by bibliographic or some digital identifier, that can describe it at the time the reader saw it...
  • and, finally, a long-term archive so that scientists who live after us will still have access.

Pullinger believes that is the type of journal that will live on, because it is at the core of the conduct of science. It gives space to preprint servers, to databases, and to more traditional products, depending on what the scientists want. There need be no "issues," nor need the formal structures of writing remain. What happens depends not on publishing, but on what works for the scientific discipline.

The goals of scientific publishing:-

  • communication of the latest research
  • an archive of information and data
  • a record of scientific endeavour
  • claiming precedence in discovery, and
  • career development.

could all be improved, argues Pullinger, if not part of a journal. One thing electronic publishing has already begun to do is to unbundle these items.

Who dares wins?

The increasing concentration of publishers in the information industry is both worrying and challenging. The Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer merger will create one of the world's largest professional and scientific publishing and information groups. It is reported the new company will have 42,000 employees. Thomson Science is another firm to "cave in" and be swallowed up.

The Academic Press deal in the UK has apparently not been the "killer application" in the Pilot Site License scheme for user changes which British libraries thought it was going to be. Issues include publicising availability, breaking print habits and user acceptance. The US Chronicle of Higher Education article (September 12, 1997) indicated mixed feelings on the Academic type of total deal. Access is now available only in the total package deals, which are linked to print subscriptions and which bring users all of a company's on-line journals. The use of "cherry-picking" ie. gaining access on a consortia or local basis to a selection of journals will increasingly be the norm or at least a demand. Academic Press consortia offers in 1998 for Australian university libraries seem unwilling to accept "cherry picking"!


It is well understood that monographs at the present time are relatively unwieldy to both place and retrieve on the Net, yet increasingly expensive for university presses (where this still exist) to produce. Libraries globally are buying less and less monographs as serials bite more and more into access budgets. Monographs are relatively expensive for inter lending access, especially internationally.

Scholarly communication providers will need to implement developments whereby books and chapters are available on line but with an easily available network print access outlet at reasonable cost and proximity and with appropriate copyright protection/royalty payments.

Fewer and fewer titles in the social sciences and humanities are being published by traditional publishers in Australia and worldwide sales of scholarly academic treatises are not high in these spheres. The university library service of the future will need to include access to an increasing number of electronic texts and be able to negotiate electronic monograph site licenses, download material, and print-out copies of them. At the time of writing a UK consortium is bidding to set up a national database of digitised copyright material.

The National Academy Press in Washington have made the full text of their publications available on the Net. One result reported is a 17% increase in traditional hardback sales! One of its publications More than Screen Deep in the US National Information Infrastructure has stimulating chapters on future user interfaces and the resource discovery mechanisms to access information.

Access Mechanisms

The need for standardised Internet print protocols is essential. We need to examine, in local environments, the types of issues being faced by local network computing and printing services as a result of the increased use of electronic journals. Some major ILMS providers such as Innovative have such "ancient" hardcoded print output mechanisms that issues for III customers will only be resolved by their new Millennium product.

Tony Barry of the Australian National University's Department of Information and Engineering has indicated that these are likely to include:

- problems created by PDF (Portable Document Format) file sizes

- hardware issues (eg various platforms - PC, Mac)

- do all institutions have printers capable of printing PDF files?

- how successfully can PDF files can be printed to a range of laser printers?

- problems created by different types of PDF file (image, text behind image, text with illustrations)

- implications of PDF print control mechanisms (eg they may be useful for publishers but are they a barrier for users?)

To access a paper/article the reader might-

  • Connect to the publishers web site, navigate through a table contents to get to the Journal, go through its contents and get the journal on the screen. (eg Academic Press)
  • Go through the publishers search engine to get to the article (eg Alta Vista, Lycos etc.)
  • Access the article via the authors home page
  • Access an overt article level service (eg Uncover)
  • Use a bridging service to get to the publishers service (eg Blackwell's Electronic Journal Navigator (EJN) or OCLC's Electronic Journals Online ECO)
  • Search a web enabled library catalogue which linked you to one of the above

The delivery mechanism might be -

  • http direct (eg. electronic publishing, REDD)
  • tftp (eg Ariel 1)
  • ftp (eg Ariel 2)
  • email (eg Ariel 2, JEDDS)
  • fax (uncover)
  • conventional inter library loan

What is required at present is a global one stop shop. As Michael Breaks has written in Blackwell's The Well "the new electronic information services are improving access to information for the users of our libraries, but most users are becoming increasingly confused and frustrated by the variety of formats in which information is now delivered. In order to access networked information resources, which depend on licence agreements, users have to remember a variety of passwords, learn to navigate many interfaces, as well as understand different access rule and regulations".

Electronic Licensing - a confusing cornucopia

Current offerings (January 1998) illustrate a bewildering and confusing currency of electronic subscription offers and packages.

Science (Science Online) is basing, at the time of writing, its 1998 offerings to institutions via public access workstations within libraries unless one is an individual AAAS mentor. A bizarre concept for campus electronic access!

Their quote is: "Price Per Library Workstation - $25.00. Minimum order is 10 workstations if the library does not have a print Science subscription. All workstations must be located in the library." At first sight this seems like a ludicrously retrograde way for users to access information. The electronic site wide licences for Cell Press are likely to be extremely high compared to the one off print subscriptions. It is argued in such cases an electronic site license is likely to be significantly higher than a print copy price

Some publishers are offering individuals of a professional society access to on-line journals for as low as $25 per annum yet forcing institutions to pay exorbitantly high rates for the same access. How long before institutions refuse to subscribe and tell their researchers and the publishers that libraries will cancel and individuals will subscribe personally. The unfortunate loser in that scenario are students. Academics from professional societies won't see any need to change habits if costs are borne by a library and they get low personal cost access to data.

EPIC (Electronic Publishing is Cheaper) is still a contentious issue, from the Steven Harnad and Andrew Odzlyko cost reduction scenarios, to the arguments that capital injections are required of some significance to sustain electronic publishing (let's omit commercial profit issue for shareholders here!). Other publishers argue that they have to pick up hidden costs when university department met when they used secretaries and local hardware/software to assist academic journals but this scale is relatively small on an incremental basis?

Bill Robnett in his excellent Web article 'Online Journal Pricing' ( has outlined some of the issues and dilemmas facing publishers of traditional print journals in an electronic environment. He outlines some of the approaches being taken by commercial and learned society publishers.

One of these, the American Chemical Society has stirred debate with its various options. A fundamental principle, says ACS, is its belief that the Web editions of its journals are far more valuable than their print counterparts. The ACS expects individual members to cancel print subscriptions and libraries to reduce multiple subscriptions. Instead libraries have a number of options for Web versions.

  • Basic Web-only library subscription for a (departmental) subnet costs 5 per cent more than a library print subscription.
  • The lowest price a library can pay to get both print and the first Web access for one subnet is 20 per cent more than print.
  • A Web-only site license for an entire location is 65 per cent more than a library print subscription.
  • The highest price a library would pay to provide access to an entire site and still receive print is equal to 90 per cent more than the base print price.

Thus, whichever option a library chooses, if it wants Web access it will pay more than the print subscription. Against this the ACS argues that an entire site can have Web access for less than the cost of one additional print subscription.

The new features cited for the ACS journals are characteristic of the best current e-journals which add value to the base text, but they also begin to change the nature of what is a journal. The question which arises is not what percentage increase on the print price is justifiable, but why the price should be based on a product which the Web version will resemble less and less? Certainly no one would despute paying more if the move is to more discipline based one stop information resources.


One of the major areas which will need global resolution in the transmission of data and this easy access is copyright. Electronic access had so far produced even more restrictive action by many publishers through extreme licensing arrangements than has been the case for print. The example of Science magazine cited earlier is representative of the complexities that have entered the access and licensing scene. There is also the thrust, eg, by certain publishers to curtail or even abolish fair dealing in the electronic environment.

Professor Paul Goldstein of Stanford University Law School has titled his 1997 book Copyright's Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox (Goldstein, 1997). He uses the term "celestial jukebox" to incorporate a console/terminal which allows access to online text, music and video. In such a multimedia environment the nature of copyright, eg, in interactive visual images becomes more complicated but the concept of 'fair use' in a university environment is one which is in need of universal protection. The experiments with electronic reserves, eg, at Monash in Australia and Loughborough University's ACORN project in the UK have revealed the difficulties in gaining site permissions Monash have reported that only about a third of publishers give permission when contacted for permission to scan articles into an electronic reserve. Another third never replied at all.


Authors, publishers, distributors and libraries must link together in a new scholarly communication chain - otherwise the academic geese which lay the golden eggs will be well and truly stuffed? How is this to be achieved? The latest indications from the USA are that there is more concerted activity about to be generated for protecting the intellectual property of US academics. The models of Stanford's Highwire, John Hopkins's Project Muse and Columbia's CIAO provide bases for action. The trouble is that the impetus is largely coming from libraries whose power base is limited in local and international realpolitik influence.

Even the diversion of just a small proportion of the annual purchasing power of the libraries of Western universities could create and fund on a recurrent basis the necessary academic electronic information/article data banks. Co-operation however is much more difficult than competition in university sectors. No-one has the authority, least of all in the USA, to do mandatory 'top-slicing'.

The next projected round of electronic journal access for UK universities, which will start from January 1999, will apparently require electronic archiving, consortia discounts, seamless access to multiple databases and subject gateways (the preference for most users). It will be interesting to see how much of this is achieved, particularly with a looming UK threat of a 17 1/2% electronic VAT imposition, which will certainly send shock waves out!

Globalisation is the trend and universities (one feels for Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian university libraries at present - Innovative have had to forward support their fourteen sites in Thailand) are part of the same scholarly communication chain. Since imbalances are now occurring in the scholarly distribution models which have operated in the second half of the twentieth century. Running universities is often compared by Vice-Chancellors and Provosts to pushing a barrowload of frogs but the rapidly increasing prices of science print serials (and their electronic variants) may prove to be one global unifying force. The dead ducks may yet band together to issue a collective croak!

Updated:  20 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  University Librarian/ Page Contact:  Library Systems & Web Coordinator