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Commentary: The Crisis In Scholary Communication, by George Porter

The crisis in scholarly communications is now well into its third decade by many accounts. I was discussing journal cancellations with a faculty member when we touched on Henry Barschal's seminal analysis of commercially and society published journal prices. Stanford and Yale have collaborated to document the entire case of Gordon & Breach v. American Institute of Physics and American Physical Society.

Library-publisher dynamics have not changed greatly in the intervening years, but the broader awareness and concern with the topic has undergone a sea change in the last few years.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) petition did not result in a massive boycott of journals. PLoS did make a significant splash with coverage in the broader news media at the time. The emergence of PubMed Central, BioMed Central, and PLoS as publishers has not gone unnoticed, perhaps due to the sensitization of faculty and the media through the earlier effort.

The latest example, though, drives home to me just how much things have changed. I've been tracking the ripples caused by Donald Knuth and the editorial board of Journal of Algorithms (Academic Press/Elsevier) resigning en masse on December 31 and launching ACM Transactions on Algorithms (TALG), as noted on The Sci-Tech Library Question? and in the PAM Bulletin. The latest ripple:

At What Cost? As the price of scholarly journals skyrockets, Stanford fights back. Stanford Magazine May/June 2004. A couple of pages of glossy alumni magazine coverage devoted to Stanford's difficulties with journal costs and library and faculty efforts to change the system.

Of course, the changes are not confined to alumni magazines. The Knuth/JoA shock wave is being noted within the academy, as well. Caltech Library System's Online Journal Database (OJDB) has had a place holder entry for TALG since word broke of the new journal. A similar place holder can be observed in the working journals collection of Algorithms and Complexity Research at Glasgow.

The Report of the Seventh Meeting of the Committee on Electronic Information and Communication (CEIC) of the International Mathematical Union, page 2, makes note of the Knuth/JoA/TALG situation:


3.1. Knuth's Letter. A little wile ago, Donald Knuth invited his fellow editorial board members of the Journal of Algorithms to consider jumping ship (http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/joalet.pdf). The upshot is a new journal, ACM Transactions on Algorithms, to be edited by the entire former editorial staff of the Journal of Algorithms. The letter and its aftermath raises some interesting issues and led the CEIC to write a comment on its Best Practice statement touching upon related matters.

The CEIC issued its Recommendations on Information and Communication in August 2002, and revised Section 3: Best Current Practices, as of April 2004. Item 8, under "For Librarians and Mathematicians", reads:

Journal Price and Policy. Libraries have limited budgets, which often grow more slowly than the prices of journals, forcing libraries to cancel subscriptions. The cumulative effect of cancellations goes beyond individual institutions because it shifts costs to an ever smaller number of subscribers, accelerating the process of price increase and cancellation. Journal prices matter to all mathematicians.
When deciding where to submit a paper an author may choose to be aware of a journal's standing and impact, but an author also should take account of a journal's price (as well as its general policies, including archiving). In addition, one might consider a journal's price and policies when considering whether to referee or serve on an editorial board.
Of particular note are the compilations of time series mathematical journal prices:- George Porter

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