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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1998

A Response to Albert Henderson

David Flaxbart
Head, Chemistry Library
University of Texas at Austin
flaxbart@uts.cc.utexas.edu

On the surface, Albert Henderson's advocacy for research library funding might seem like a boon, to be cheered rather than refuted.  But his ongoing attempts to persuade the federal funding agencies to subsidize libraries are ultimately quixotic. One must not accept his arguments without proper examination, inasmuch as they are thinly disguised lobbying for commercial publishing interests. Those arguments fall apart because they're rooted in an outdated and simplistic model of research library functions and a refusal to consider alternatives.

Henderson dreams of a return to the golden age of the government-academic research enterprise of the 1950s and 60s, when there was plenty of money for everyone, library growth kept pace with research growth, publishers of all sizes and types made tidy profits, and everyone was happy.  Sad to say, those days ended in the late 70s, and are gone forever. (cf Graham & Diamond, 1997)  Trying to put political pressure on the federal government to restore the "good old days" is at best a waste of time, and at worst an irresponsible deflection of attention from the real problems afflicting the dissemination of scientific information.

To be fair, he does start out with some compelling accusations.  Research overhead, as far as it pertains to libraries, is a shell game.  Faculty researchers are quick to point out that there is little if any clear relationship between the overhead their grants brings into their parent institutions, and the funding patterns of the libraries within those institutions.

Henderson is also right to call attention to the troubling refusal of science policymakers to acknowledge the importance of archiving new knowledge.  Attention is concentrated on the front end of the research enterprise:  the funding mechanisms, the laboratories, the personnel. Little is said about the back end, the publication and dissemination of the knowledge gained from all this expensive activity.  The current commercial stranglehold on the end products is at least partly due to this abdication of responsibility for the results of research.  For-profit publishers gladly stepped in and laid claim to a lucrative part of the research cycle, because universities, researchers, scholarly organizations, and funding agencies could not keep up with the growing volume of output.

The phrase "the ongoing and unfair attack on publishers' prices" provides the first clue to Henderson's ulterior motives.  He dismisses more than a decade of library activism about eroding purchasing power as "cowardly antics."  True, libraries are buying far less today than they were ten or twenty years ago, due almost entirely to the rampant and self-perpetuating inflation of science journal prices.  Finding it pointless to criticize libraries for having too little money, Henderson tries to lay the blame on the government and universities.  Yet if journal price inflation followed any sort of rational economic pattern, today's sorry state of affairs would have been much harder to arrive at.

A central point of Henderson's argument is that poor library collections lead directly to "ill-informed, duplicative, and erroneous research," or as he so eloquently terms it, "crushed bone and fecal matter in fast food." He has expounded this notion in numerous past writings, (e.g. Henderson 1996, and this author's response, Flaxbart 1996.)  While it is not hard to believe that a significant portion of today's scientific publication is superfluous, blaming inadequate libraries for this is quite a stretch.  The problem more likely lies in insufficiently rigorous acceptance standards for many journals, and the entire publish-or-perish system that forces university researchers to churn out reams of repetitive "least publishable units".  If editors and referees aren't doing their jobs well enough, is it because their libraries lack sufficient holdings to check the validity and originality of submissions?  Or is it because the sheer glut of articles overwhelms their resolve?  The latter seems more plausible.  Would a bigger library holding more journals solve that problem?  It's doubtful; if so much of the literature is drivel, it can hardly help scientists to have more of it to wade through in their libraries.

Eugene Garfield has claimed that the "flood" of scientific literature is largely a myth. (Garfield 1991)  Whether there are 10,000 or 50,000 scientific "journals" out there is beside the point.  Decades of citation studies indicate that the vast bulk of cited literature comes from a relatively small handful of core journals that are still widely held in academic libraries.  According to Garfield's analysis of ISI's Journal Citation Reports (1994), "500 journals account for half of what is published and more than 70% of what is cited, and 2,000 journals published about 85% of all SCI-indexed articles that year and **95% of cited articles** [emphasis added]." (Garfield, 1996) If a scientist neither knows about nor has ready access to an obscure niche journal, the nation's R&D enterprise is hardly going to collapse.  More than one researcher would voice the opinion that if a paper is not published in a widely known and read journal, it's probably not worth reading anyway.  That's why nobody misses many of the lesser journals university libraries have cancelled in recent years.  Anecdotal experience certainly supports this and Garfield's statements.  Despite years of cutbacks, US research libraries as a group still possess very strong collections.  But there is a new and welcome emphasis on quality, rather than quantity:  the main question for librarians now is no longer "What is out there?" but rather "What is good?".  The time for worry is when serials cuts begin to affect access to that core group of heavily cited journals, and as prices soar, that time is at hand.

Even then, all is not lost as long as researchers have access to needed materials.  Henderson utterly ignores the concept of "just in time" access models that have been operating effectively in libraries for many years. He equates non-ownership with failure.  No library can possibly own everything a researcher might need.  If by some miracle funding agencies decided to subsidize libraries more directly, it's folly to believe that libraries would use this funding to restore cancelled print subscriptions. A carefully planned mix of access and ownership is the goal of libraries today, and in that we have been largely successful.

It is here that new digital resources show the most promise.  For many esoteric titles, it is far more cost-effective to buy articles one at a time rather than subscribe to an entire journal for years.  Emerging models of "pay by the drink" electronic access may make this process seamless for end-users.  And one must not forget the importance of electronic secondary resources, such as the well-established indexing tools, as well as newer content-rich databanks that synthesize and organize the primary literature and provide valuable shortcuts to sifting and searching it.

Henderson seems oddly eager to proclaim the demise of electronic publishing.  That is nothing if not premature.  In times of transition, there are bound to be initial failures, false starts, and half-steps as a production-consumption cycle adapts to new paradigms.  The expectations of producers and customers evolve over time, and one group is almost always temporarily out of step with the other.  The slow start we've seen so far in the oft-predicted migration to an all-electronic publication cycle is largely due to an overly conservative attitude toward substantive change. Publishers and readers are comfortable with the journals they've known for decades, and are understandably reluctant to see them radically altered or eliminated.  Therefore the first steps toward digitization are highly tentative:  print journals are meticulously cloned on the Web, to look the same and feel the same, thus offering assurances that they are just as good and just as reliable as the paper kind.  However, this security-blanket mindset creates a system poised to fail.  The format may be updated, but the product is identical; nothing has been re-engineered or rethought. Instead of new products, libraries are faced with mere duplication for the sake of user convenience, and the added cost that goes with it.  This only makes matters worse, and does nothing to address the problems at hand.

These "baby steps" may serve the purpose of laying the groundwork, getting people used to using and relying on digital dissemination.  But true innovation requires a broader vision, and a willingness to take risks. Early explorers did not discover new continents by sailing about within sight of familiar shorelines -- they had to strike off into the unknown to prove that it could be done.  Fear of the unknown is not exclusively a publisher trait.  Scientists primarily consider the esteem, exposure, and indirect rewards that come from publication of their research.  Most still see no reason to replace a system that has served them well for generations with something unproven and virtual.  Publishers meanwhile consider their bottom lines, profit margins and cash flows, and see no reason to fix what, to them, is not broken.

Nevertheless, the library community and a slowly increasing number of academic administrators and faculty feel that the current system of scientific publication is indeed broken.  Further removed from the intense cultural connection scientists have with their literature, they are more able to see the economic realities driving change.  What was a symbiotic relationship between publishers and libraries thirty years ago is now parasitic, and the host is dying.  The longstanding practice of handing over the results of public research to private publishers, who add little if any value to that information, and who then sell it back at exorbitant prices, is economic idiocy.

Henderson accuses universities of seeking "relief from the cost of knowledge."  This would indeed be a neglectful policy if the cost of that knowledge fit any known economic models and was driven by accepted market forces.  But the costs universities face in this arena are not only artificial, they are usurious, controlled by the whims of a publishing industry whose voracious appetite for profit has nearly destroyed the system it claims to foster.  Something has to change.

Defending the status quo is a reaction to be expected from those who have gained the most from the present system and who have the most to lose from its demise:  publishers and well-paid editors.  The early stirrings of change, particularly the excellent "To Publish and Perish" white paper and recent proposals that authors retain copyright (Guernsey, 1998; Bachrach et al., 1998) are vigorously attacked by all types of publishers as dangerous subversion.  The standard mantra is intoned over and over:  without publishers, peer review will vanish  and the validity of science will vanish with it, making the literature unreliable and worthless.  (Henderson himself claims this has already happened!)  Signs of this uncertainty are everywhere as publishers hedge their bets.  Advocates for change should take heart in these confused reactions:  if they show fear, we must be on the right track.

On the other hand, a gradual pace of reform isn't totally a bad thing. Longstanding attitudes do not change overnight.  A generational shift must occur among scientists, and the evidence of an untenable situation must gradually accumulate before a critical mass of people will accept change as inevitable and desirable.  Within the next twenty or thirty years, a new infrastructure should be in place.   Traditional publishers that refuse to change the way they do things will have either a greatly diminished role, or no role at all. The sheer weight of economic reality will force the change over any objections from special interest groups.  Whether evolution or revolution, the short term will be expensive.  But the eventual payoff will be a new system of scientific communication that retains the things we value most -- peer review, equitable and ready access, archival permanence -- while regaining what we've lost:  ownership and control of the fruits of research.

There's nothing wrong with seeking to build awareness of the costs and importance of the task ahead.  One wonders, however, if Albert Henderson would remain as vociferous in his advocacy for increased library funding if the profiteering publishers he represents were no longer in the picture.

References

Bachrach, Steven, et al. 1998.  Who should own scientific papers?  Science 281, Sep 4 1998, p.1459-60.  (Science editorialized against this article's position in the same issue, p.1451.)

Flaxbart, David. 1996.  More overhead dollars, more cancellations? Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, no.165.  Online at: http://www.lib.unc.edu/prices/1996/PRIC165.HTML

Garfield, Eugene. 1991. The Scientist, 5(17) Sept 2, 1991, p.11.  Online at: http://165.123.33.33/yr1991/sept/opin_910902.html

________. 1996. The Scientist 10(17), Sept.2, 1996, p.13,16.  Online at: http://165.123.33.33/yr1996/sept/research_960902.html

Graham, Hugh D. and Nancy Diamond.  The Rise of American Research Universities: Elites and Challengers in the Postwar Era.  (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.)  pp. 84ff.

Guernsey, Lisa. 1998. A Provost challenges his faculty to retain copyright on articles.  Chronicle of Higher Education, Sep. 18, 1998, p.A29-30

Henderson, Albert. 1996. Forecast--more cancellations.   Allen Press Journal Promotion Series, Jan/Feb 1996.  Online at: http://www.allenpress.com/newsletters/archive.html

To Publish and Perish. 1998.  Policy Perspectives 7(4) Mar 1998.  Online at: http://www.irhe.upenn.edu/pp/

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