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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1999

SPARC: The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition

Alison Buckholtz
SPARC Communications Manager
Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition
alison@arl.org

Michael Rosenzweig is an ecologist, so he appreciates self-regulating systems. He is also an evolutionary biologist and the former editor of a well-known journal on that subject from a well-known publishing conglomerate. But when that journal's price began to rise, year after year -- wreaking havoc for libraries and research facilities -- Rosenzweig realized the system was far from self-regulating. By last year, when the cost of his journal had jumped to $777, Rosenzweig and his entire board of editors had jumped ship in protest.

But Rosenzweig, who believes that scientists have a duty to the community, wasn't about to give up. He temporarily hung up his lab coat and donned a publisher's blazer. Through an innovative partnership with SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), Rosenzweig founded a new journal, Evolutionary Ecology Research (EER). He drew on "name-brand" contributors and cutting-edge research, and the publication debuted in January 1999 at one-third the price of its competitor. It is now in its fourth issue and available in print and online.

EER and SPARC have set out to show authors that they have options when it comes to publishing their research -- that by publishing in independent or society-sponsored journals they directly support their own profession. Overall, SPARC aims to create competition for the high priced journals, so that libraries have options when subscription renewals come due.

"SPARC and its partners are out to change the landscape of academic publishing," said Rick Johnson, SPARC Enterprise Director. "Scholarly communications will not flourish unless there is an alternative to paying thousands of dollars for a single scientific journal." According to Johnson, the librarians felt the strain of high prices first because they're the ones paying the bills. But the impact is also increasingly evident to researchers who find their libraries can no longer afford to get their favored journal.

According to Library Journal's 1999 periodical price survey, the cost of scientific titles has increased 11 percent between 1998 and 1999, and 54 percent since 1995. The average cost for a physics title in 1999 was 49 percent higher than in 1995. The average chemistry title in 1999 saw a 53 percent increase during the same period. Research from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) shows that libraries simply cannot keep up with the cost increases.

"These prices have been a complete disaster," said Ken Frazier, director of the general library system at the University of Wisconsin and chairman of SPARC's steering committee. Some libraries, such as the University of Wisconsin, canceled subscriptions to a significant number of their physics journals just to keep up with increases on a handful of scientific titles. Many libraries cut from the humanities journal budget. Anyone with a spreadsheet could see that the future looked bleak. "We were hostages to corporations that publish the research we ourselves conduct, research that university budgets pay for," Frazier said.

With support from ARL, Frazier and other librarians created SPARC to foster competition among high-priced journals. By partnering with academic societies like the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) as well as university initiatives, professional organizations, and budding entrepreneurs like Michael Rosenzweig, SPARC nourishes and prods new journals into life, then facilitates their entrance into the marketplace. The response has been overwhelming: over 160 libraries and consortia have signed on as SPARC members, pledging their support for the mission -- and subscriptions to the SPARC alternative journals. Libraries and societies in Canada, Europe and Australia, often harder hit by price increases, have also joined SPARC.

SPARC journals do head-to-head combat with their direct competitors. Rosenzweig's Evolutionary Ecology Research debuted in January; at $272 for an institutional subscription to the electronic edition ($305 for the electronic and print versions), it's a low cost alternative to a title that has increased in price an average of 19% annually over the past dozen years. {PhysChemComm}, a product of SPARC's partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), is now available online at only $353, compared to an $8368 commercial journal. It is projected to deliver, on a cost per article basis, at just 20% of the price of the competitor. Organic Letters, from SPARC and the American Chemical Society, launches in July 1999. At $2,300, the ACS title -- 65-70 percent of the content at 25 percent of the price -- is a high quality alternative to a journal that costs $8,602.

For Mike Hannant, the RSC's electronic journals publisher, the partnership with SPARC isn't exclusively a business venture. The partnership "allows us to challenge the existing publishing methods and therefore the costs associated with traditional publishing. We aim to deliver e-journals which will incorporate all the benefits of publishing on the web at a moderate and affordable price."

For the moment, though, libraries and university faculty may be the biggest beneficiaries of lower journal costs. "SPARC has given libraries hope," said Margo Crist, director of libraries at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "We support it because it supports us -- and the researchers who depend on us."

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