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Publishers' Roles: was, re: STM April white paper comments

John Cox, and probably the membership of STM in general, have an
understandable desire to preserve the basic structure of the STM
publishing industry. The views he has expressed, however, do not show an
understanding that the basic principles governing STM journal publishing
have changed. At the risk of repeating what should be elementary concepts:

The primary function of publication is that of making the material
physically available; secondary functions are that of validating,
organizing, and preserving the material. The role of publishers (society
or commercial) in this process is to provide the organization necessary
for production and distribution. The role of libraries is to facilitate
and provide the necessary organization, instruction, and preservation to
give individuals access to the material.

Until recently, the only practical method of carrying out the primary
function, distributing scholarly material, has been publication on paper.
This is a capital-intensive process, and unless carried out on a very
small scale requires elaborate financial and organizational support, thus
requiring the development of the publishing industry. Even here, the
economic requirements do not necessarily support the present financial and
copyright arrangements: Since the subscriptions for scholarly journals are
always payable in advance, there is no financial risk, short of outrageous
mismanagement or insistence on continuing unprofitable titles. This
altogether removes the traditional justification for large profit margins
(in the publication of popular books the returns on the few very
successful titles must pay for the others, and the publisher must retain
the copyright because it is only successive editions that give these large

The basic distribution of scholarly texts no longer requires paper. This
eliminates the absolute need for the entire present distribution and
production network, and gives the potential for a much simpler system.  
The most basic distribution, the posting of submitted papers prepared in
appropriate electronic formats and the access to them by author, title and
keyword, is extremely inexpensive, partly because it makes use of
available capacity on already existing networks. If one wishes to provide
the continuation of the traditional paper products, and also the
availability of equivalent electronic versions and appropriate
enrichments, it could be very expensive (though the experience of some
societies has shown that if properly reorganized it need not be as
expensive as conventional modes of commercial printed journal production).

The secondary functions are also important. In the existing system, the
costs for the validation of material by peer review and editing are
generally not borne by the publishers. These functions are performed by
the same group of people who are the authors; they do this work for
prestige and similar recognition rather than direct monetary remuneration.
In the existing system, the costs for organization and education are not
borne by the primary publishers either. The provision of indexing is done
by generally separate organizations; the funding of these comes from the
same available pool of money as that for primary publication. The
provision of access and instruction is done by libraries; to some extent
the funds available for organization and instruction compete with the
funds available for purchasing publications. In the existing system, the
costs for preservation are also borne by the libraries. To some extent the
funds available for this, as buildings and their maintenance, also compete
with the funds available for purchasing publications.  None of these
functions require the continuation of print publications or their
electronic equivalent.

The question then becomes which works are appropriate for what form of
publication. The absolutely limiting factor is that the available money,
at least in the United States, is not increasing significantly. It is of
course theoretically conceivable that the benefits of an improved system
might lead policy makers and funding bodies to provide increased financial
resources, but there have certainly been no signs of this. On the
contrary, it seems to be the case that the readers and authors consider
the most basic form of electronic publication sufficient, and funding
beyond that level unnecessary, as seen in high energy physics where 90% of
the literature use is through the free electronic repository.

Estimates I have seen for the continuing role of conventional publications
seem to be based upon the reading habits of the individual making the
estimate. Some researchers, who already use primarily informal means of
communication and read only one or two printed journals, think that only a
few news and review journals can or should survive. Seeing the widely
varying work patterns of users, I suspect that it will be more like 50%.  
At least half of formally published material is never cited. Although it
may be worthwhile to distribute it for the record, at least this much
material would seem to be more suited for informal electronic publication.
I would add to this material in esoteric fields or serving very small
research communities. There will remain a need to formally publish, in
both print and online, the equivalent of the major journals in each
subject area, and a wide variety of review and news journals.

To replace the disappearing primary function, publishers have recently
been offering to assume some of the secondary functions. To the extent
this does produce a system that would replace rather than add to elements
of the present system, it might provide an opportunity to combine
functions and save total costs.  The integration of primary and secondary
publication is a particularly useful possibility here, though I wonder if
the increased participation of commercial publishers, and the likely
fragmentation by publisher, would decrease total costs. (I think a more
promising path will be to make use of the spread of electronic publishing
for such cost savings techniques as the automatic generation of citation
indexes, though this might not provide a opportunity for conventional
publishers.) The potential for electronic distribution to replace physical
libraries is another possibility.  Although some librarians have the same
fears here as publishers do, I consider that the actual skill of a
librarian should be seen not as the physical but the intellectual
organization of material; we librarians will need to reconsider the
organization of our work but our teaching skills will be needed all the
more. With respect to preservation, a commercial organization subject to
profit requirements or a professional organization without secure funding
are not suitable bodies to operate an archival repository, print or
electronic.  to assure the survivability and necessary technical updating
for an archival electronic repository. With print, safety lies in the wide
dispersal of resources; with electronic resources, this is not necessarily
the case as both the physical existence and the technical updating must be
secured, and the appropriate organizational model is still to be

In the past, publishers have been quite satisfied that they are doing
their part if they can hold price increases to under 10% a year. With
library budgets increasing at a slower rate than that, what could they
have possibly expected to happen? What is happening, now that the
technical capability has become available, is that the publishers are
becoming increasing irrelevant.

What can they do, since they will not likely persuade the establishment to
increase their funding. They can continue to ignore reality and continue
some variant of what they are doing.  This may permit the more efficient
and innovative publishers to continue a little longer at the expense of
the others, but the resulting monopolies will remove all vestiges of price
competition rather than eliminate the price spiral.  I suggest they need
to accept that their role and size will be more limited: They no longer
need will material that cannot be published at prices that anyone will pay
given that there are now alternatives. They will instead concentrate of
the relatively smaller number of truly high-quality journals, print and
electronic, that contain a sufficiently large but manageable number of
important articles that people will actually want to read, and to buy.  
And they will return to publishing books.

Dr. David Goodman 
Biology Librarian, 
and Co-chair, Electronic Journals Task Force
Princeton University Library 
dgoodman@princeton.edu         http://www.princeton.edu/~biolib/
phone: 609-258-3235            fax: 609-258-2627