Michigan State University
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Crisis in Scholarly Communication

The "crisis in scholarly communication" is characterized by the rising costs of providing access to scholarly publications that outpace the growth of library budgets and the increased restrictions on usage of scholarly material in the electronic environment. The overall result is a decrease in the ability of authors to promote and share their own scholarship, and a reduced access to the published literature.

Interestingly, much of the scholarly publishing system is based on a gift economy. Authors and reviewers provide their work free of charge to publishers in order to support the dissemination and exchange of scholarly research. Still, there are significant costs to publishers involved in producing, publishing, and providing access to the scholarly record.  The pressures to publish come from universities themselves in the tenure and promotion requirements, but some feel the costs of scholarly publishing in the long run are unsustainable. 

Rising subscription costs for libraries affect what they can purchase

  • Costs of subscriptions: The costs of institutional journal subscriptions for libraries has increased far beyond general inflation and continues to rise (see graph (pdf) from the Association of Research Libraries). This is due to many factors, including the increase in research output and new costs associated with electronic publishing. Higher prices mean libraries spend an increasing percentage of their budgets on a smaller number of resources. The increase in the absolute number of journals published globally makes it impossible for libraries to keep up with new subscriptions.

  • Commercial ownership of scholarly journals: Commercial publishers rather than societies or nonprofit publishers now control a much higher percentage of journals than ever before. Smaller society publishers were simply unable to keep up with the technical requirements and costs of publishing their own journals in the electronic environment.  Mergers between commercial publishers and takeovers of smaller publishers mean that a few major companies control a majority of scholarly publishing. These publishers are concerned primarily with profit rather than scholarly dissemination.

  • Electronic publishing has brought new pricing schemes: Bundling of electronic journals into "Big Deals" is common, and libraries have purchased these in an attempt to save money.  While such deals decrease the cost per journal for libraries, they also lock up large portions of library budgets.  Sometimes libraries are forced to subscribe to a whole package to get access to one journal. Tiered pricing for access based on an institution's FTE, extra charges for remote access, for more than one user, and overall higher costs than for printed material all make it more difficult for libraries to afford electronic journals. Electronic books are a new addition to libraries that also have higher prices than printed materials.

The market for scholarly monographs is shrinking

  • Pressures on library budgets:  Libraries are able to purchase a smaller percentage of the monographic literature than in the past because shrinking budgets and the increase in available resources for purchase mean librarians must focus on materials that are in the highest demand rather than niche materials.  
  • Individual scholars rely on library-purchased materials in the electronic environment and are purchasing fewer scholarly monographs than when they were only in print. 

Licensing places restrictions on the use of electronic materials

  • Libraries have always relied on interlibrary loan to get researchers access to materials that their institution does not have. With electronic journals, publishers have often required libraries to sign licenses that restrict interlibrary loan. With electronic books, only borrowing of single chapters is allowed. Over time these restrictions diminish the ability to make as much scholarship as possible available to researchers.
  • Publishers often have many more restrictions on use of electronic materials for classes, coursepacks and reserves than they did for more traditional print materials. Ironically, this means that while the electronic environment could make access easier for students, in practice the access is more difficult because of publisher restrictions on creating electronic coursepacks and putting electronic materials on reserve.