From my old school files: “Scholarly communication, electronic content and ‘open access'”

I graduated from the School of Information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS), University of Arizona, Tucson, in December 2004 to facilitate a mid-career shift from church/pastoral ministry back into the academic world as a librarian.

The decision to enter academic librarianship at this moment in time has proven to be among the best I have ever made. I have been able to witness and (more importantly) directly participate in dramatic changes impacting the nature and role of the library in the digital age. It has been personally very exciting and extremely energizing.

Witnessing and participating in the rapidly changing scholarly communication landscape has been one aspect of academic librarianship of particular interest to me. I latched onto this early in my career preparation. Clearly, I was bringing the scholarly disposition with me into this shift. But there were new things I was to learn about this communication process of which I was previously unaware, including the assumptions of the existing system, and the disruptive forces—like the Internet as a platform for dissemination, and the fledgling Open Access Movement—that would help to drive that change.

I was rooting-around in my old school files the other day and found a research proposal I had submitted to Professor William Welburn for the semester paper assignment in IRLS 504: Foundations of Library and Information Science, dated March 4, 2004. The proposal is entitled “Scholarly communication, electronic content and ‘open access.'” For archival purposes, as well as a reminder to myself of how I started down this path of interest in open access, I thought I would transcribe the proposal here. (Incidentally, the actual paper, which I also have in my file, ended up focusing primarily on the historical development of the scholarly journal. Although I did not proceed to address open access, there are some interesting bits in the paper that bear on the larger process of scholarly communication and the logic of open access. I may share some of this in a subsequent post.)

Topic: Scholarly communication, electronic content and “open access”

Peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journals, published in print form at regular intervals, have provided a workable medium for broad and relatively rapid dissemination of the results of research since the late seventeenth century. Because the peer-review system quickly became entrenched as an institution of formal scholarly communication, scholars and researchers have viewed participation in the system as an expectation for making their contributions to human knowledge and gaining appropriate recognition.

A large commercial journal publishing industry has grown-up in the midst of the “quasi-exponential” expansion of scientific and scholarly research over the years (Meadows, 105). As long as publishing was seen as an efficient and cost-effective medium facilitating relatively unimpeded access for scholarly communication no one complained too much about the “business side” of things. However, a complex series of issues in recent years has exposed a looming crisis. The scholarly community is a captive market in an entrenched peer-review system, and therefore subject to potential exploitation by publishers. While most scholars are not motivated by profit in their research (although they do want to receive appropriate recognition for their work), commercial publishers clearly are. The industry has become increasingly concentrated through merger and acquisition, and the elimination of true competition has driven-up the costs of journals dramatically. Libraries, which have traditionally served as a key access point for scholarly journals, are increasingly under pressure to cancel subscriptions as a cost-cutting measure. Meanwhile, intellectual property issues under publisher copyrights can often restrict scholars’ use of their own publications!

Recent years have also seen the rapid development of online “full text” electronic versions of print journals. The new technology has promised enhanced access, reduced time lag between completion of research articles and publication, and potentially reduced costs over print (also saving libraries considerable shelf-space). But publishers have acted quickly to consolidate control over the electronic journal market through elaborate subscription agreements that “bundle” high-quality high-demand journals with lower-quality lower-demand journals, furthering their profits. In a recent article, Christopher Reed (2004) writes:

Now, with electronic access and bundled price deals from publishers, the storehouse of knowledge has been further centralized and relocated to the computers of commercial publishing houses and professional societies. Like it or not, publishers have become the de facto libraries of the world. They know it and are exploiting it for unseemly financial gain.

Scholars and researchers and their supporting institutions are beginning to ask whether the new online electronic technologies might be utilized to by-pass the costly, restrictive and exploitative practices of the commercial journal publishing industry. It is appreciated that just publishing articles to the Web is not sufficient. The best aspects of peer-review are still needed to assure quality research. But scholars, researchers and their supporting institutions are beginning to ask whether this can be done outside the current structure—regaining a measure of control, and enhancing true access and dissemination of research results. Momentum for change is gaining under the rubric of “Open Access” (e.g., the Budapest Open Access Initiative). This paper will review the history of the peer-reviewed journal, and the growth of commercial publishers leading to the current crisis. Emphasis will be placed on understanding how “Open Access” can work as a viable alternative to the current publisher controlled system.

Underlying theme: This topic interacts with a variety of interrelated issues: the economics of publishing, costs to subscribers, access, and intellectual property. While it will be unavoidable that I touch on most of these, I would like to structure this paper around the underlying theme of access. While not being naive or merely idealistic, profit-motive restriction on access seems antithetical to the spirit that impels most scholars and researchers to want to add to the store of human knowledge.


Cole, S. (2000). The role of journals in the growth of scientific knowledge. In B. Cronin & H.B. Atkins (Eds.), The web of knowledge: A festschrift in honor of Eugene Garfield [ASIS Monograph Series] (pp. 109-142). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Fjallbrant, N. (1997). Scholarly communication: Historical development and new possibilities. Paper presented at the 1997 IATUL Conference. [updated link].

Meadows, J. (2000). The growth of journal literature: A historical perspective. In B. Cronin & H.B. Atkins (Eds.), The web of knowledge: A festschrift in honor of Eugene Garfield [ASIS Monograph Series] (pp. 87-107). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Reed, C.A. (2004, February 20). Just say no to exploitative publishers of science. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B16.

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Technology, Scholarly Journals
One comment on “From my old school files: “Scholarly communication, electronic content and ‘open access'”
  1. […] to let you know that I’m still alive, I’m following-up with the plan I suggested in a recent post to excerpt relevant bits from the semester paper I wrote for my Foundations of Library and […]

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