Monopoly

Yesterday I mentioned the conflict between libraries and commercial vendors. One wants to collect, organize, and disseminate information. The other wants to make money. (Or, at least they usually do. This morning brought me an email from Marquette Journals, saying that in January they will begin publishing eight completely open access communication journals). That conflict is one problem that research libraries may not survive. Another problem is journal monopoly.

Almost every journal is a monopoly. This is especially true of prominent journals. A few years ago I made a presentation to a group of Princeton faculty on the economics of scholarly communication, making the argument to a diverse group that rising science journal costs can make it more difficult for humanities junior professors to get tenure. (I tried to be inclusive.) I included a slide with this:

Journals are Not a Commodity

  • Can’t unsubscribe to Brain Research ($18K)
  • And substitute Brain ($611)
  • Or Mind ($135)
  • Commercial publishers keep consolidating
  • Libraries have to buy

The prices have probably gone up, but the general point is the same. Research libraries are trapped as long as certain high-priced journals are considered necessities. The best scholars usually publish in them, and larger universities have to buy them. The vendors know this. They know that without a scholarly publishing revolution many libraries are going to keep paying, no matter what the cost. I occasionally make dire pronouncements about research libraries going broke because of certain rising costs, but I don’t really think that will happen. Instead, I think rising journal costs will rise until equilibrium is achieved, and certain vendors know that even the richest libraries just can’t afford to pay any more. Then they will maintain that equilibrium as every other goal of the library is sacrificed for certain expensive parts of the collection.

Or maybe most research libraries will either go broke or just not be able to collect necessary scholarly materials. With that equilibrium argument, I was just trying to present the sunny side of the picture. Then again, perhaps there will be a revolution in scholarly communication, even if it takes a generation or two.

2 thoughts on “Monopoly

  1. I wonder if that revolution in scholarly communication isn’t reasonably close or at least reaonsably likely. In my field anyway, I know of several researchers who have amassed huge bibliographies on various topics, such as Shaun Gallagher’s “Concepts of Person and Self” listing or Dave Chalmers’s “Contemporary Philosophy of Mind” bibliography. What makes these kinds of things almost revolutionary is that the references are selected for quality and professional interest (at some level). Some degree of peer review or editorial oversight is involved, then, depending upon who manages the site.
    True, many of the links lead to articles in old-fashioned journals (and often prominent ones), but not all. More and more scholars put up their manuscripts on their webpages. Done well, coordinated lists of these works could be the start of something big.
    Maybe.

  2. I think an evolution is definitely happening, but I also think it will be a long time before anything other than the scholarly-press book or the peer-reviewed article will have much weight for tenure decisions. And since I think a lot of academic literature is driven by the need for tenure, that alone could slow down the evolution. As long as publishing in certain very expensive commercially owned journals is seen as a good professional step (and not just a good way to publicize scholarship), then the problem will be with us. I also have hope for institutional repositories, which I think will be more stable then papers on individual websites. Maybe I’m too gloomy, but when you could buy a decent car for what a quarterly journal costs per year, something is definitely wrong.

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