Scholarly communication in a period of revolution
- Life and death on the coral reef: an ecological perspective on scholarly publishing in the health sciences

That call for action needs to be focused not only to prevent the imminent destruction of the oceans, it must be aimed at the opportunities and threats in the realm of scholarly publishing. Print-based publications have survived and prospered for centuries, and the production of paper products is not yet declining. In the world of scientific journals, however, recent economic crises and user demand have pushed librarians to rapidly forego print in favor of electronic-only access. Ready or not, we have turned a very major corner, and the future remains unclear. Where once we were sailing on a predictable if not calm sea, we now find ourselves in the midst of a raging typhoon of unknown duration, and MLA members are divided in our opinions about what to do or not to do.

Management guru Warren Bennis says that leaders are all too often “thwarted by an unconscious conspiracy to preserve the status quo” [29], and many would say that describes those faculty members who would like to ignore electronic publishing and the new possibilities it presents. Some faculty and librarians actively strive to sustain the status quo, often in direct conflict with those seeking to push change through promulgation of new online journals. We need to convince our fellow librarians and faculty colleagues that change is essential, it is in their best interest, and it merits action. At the moment, however, we are not all on the same page and different perspectives are clashing, because change causes everyone to feel threatened.

Talk about a complex system in distress! Symbiosis ties us to each other, but change menaces those ties. After centuries of stability, a radically new digital creature has emerged in the publishing ecosystem, more powerful than any El Niño and more certain to permanently rewrite the seascape. Electronic publications are transforming our lives and work places. Suddenly, we are faced with dire questions of survival. Who are the most critical players in the publishing ecosystem, those whose death would speed the demise of the entire structure? It seems clear that authors can claim this niche, but what about librarians and for-profit publishers? As the water temperature rises, which creatures will adapt and evolve, and which will die off like the fragile coral polyp?

Libraries, of course, are under severe economic stress, and some have turned belly up. For decades, monopolies in scientific, technical, and medical publishing have weakened the buying power of our institutions during a period when we had very limited options for responding. Like a swimmer who sees the dorsal fin of an approaching shark, we could see the inevitable result of rising prices and declining budgets. In the purely print era, we begged for more money or canceled more journals each year. Circumstances have changed, however. Electronic publishing promises to reinvent the rules of today, just as the printing press brought on the scientific revolution of the Middle Ages. With the advent of HighWire Press, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, PubMed Central, BioMed Central, BioOne, the Open Archives Initiative, and the Public Library of Science comes the chance to transform scholarly communication in very fundamental ways. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recognized that we are at a time of great uneasiness and little certainty, “on the battlefield of a war over scientific publishing” [30].

A surprising number of individuals purport to be able to predict the outcome of this war, however. They seem assured that certain endeavors and models are bound to fail, while others prevail. I would note, perhaps somewhat cynically, that, as individuals and as a society, we really have a deplorable record when it comes to predicting the future and especially the impact of new technology. I have lived through the pronouncements that television would mean the death of radio and attendance at sporting events, inexpensive videocassette recordings would cause the death of movie theaters, and microfilm would be the sure-fire medium of tomorrow. Who knew that gopher technology would come and go in such a flash? I am skeptical of any predictions at this point, and I suspect the final outcomes in publishing are likely to be different than what anyone describes today.

As mentioned earlier, Buchsbaum described ecological succession, or replacement of one organism by another better suited to the environment. It appears improbable to librarians that print will entirely disappear, yet digital access and delivery continues to eclipse paper as the medium of speed and convenience. Scientists hunger for fast access to knowledge and fast dissemination of their own research, and online distribution is indeed better suited to fulfill these needs. Ecological theory predicts success for the new digital life form, and that is what we see playing out.

As I wrote this lecture, I quickly lost the ability to keep track of, let alone read, the tsunami of articles and news items about electronic journals and the emergence of “open access” publications [3135]. The Wall Street Journal included open access publishing as one of the ten most important health stories of 2003 [36]. Considerable controversy swirls around this category, and many see it as a direct threat to the monopolies and high profit margins of for-profit publishers. The Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing defines such publications as those that meet two conditions:

1. The author(s) and copyright holder(s) grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship, as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.

2. A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving. [37]

Open access and related publications are beginning to have a huge impact on the print world. They are being cited as widely and used even more frequently than print journals for the same subject disciplines [38]. If ever we had a chance to help break the old mold and design a new one for the future, this is that time. The free market demonstrates the continual failure of many would-be commercial firms. It appears that electronic publishing may well reduce the stranglehold of monopolies and, at least for a time, restore a freer free market. MLA members are key players in that marketplace, and we are more than mere buyers. By working with faculty colleagues, we can play a role in controlling the supply of resources to various publishing vehicles as well as the way they are accessed. If we do not take a part in this revolution, we will surely be its victims.

The publishing ecosystem might not be as complicated as the interwoven life of the coral reef, but numerous organisms significantly affect its balance. Alas, the reef has no information-management function, only hard-wired instinct and vulnerability to a myriad of environmental dynamics and dangers.

In the publishing system, information management is becoming more muddled. Publishers do not simply print and disseminate information; now they provide online indexes and retrieval interfaces that supplant similar efforts by indexers and librarians. They stake out their territory by spinning convoluted licensing agreements, and they gobble up the smaller fish around them. They deliver full text to the user's desktop and market directly to that user. They re-massage existing electronic articles into new clusters and products that appeal to the appetites of new markets. In short, they aggressively seek to solidify their position in the marketplace and strengthen their control of scholarly articles as resources, thus accelerating the downward spiral where availability becomes ever less affordable.

With this profound change in the environment, authors flounder. Where it was easy to give publishers the burden of copyright protection, it will be time consuming to accept individual responsibility for managing one's own intellectual property in the very busy digital world. At the same time, the faster turn-around of review for open access publishing and greater citation of one's work might be powerful pheromones to the scientist. More rapid feedback and publication may be just the allure authors cannot resist, and librarians can dangle this lure in front of them. Once a critical mass of authors begins to submit manuscripts to open access publications, the entire system will shift until the next major evolutionary breakthrough starts the cycle of change all over again. Librarians should not be fooled into thinking we will return to a long period of publishing stability. The pace of technological change continues to accelerate, and electronic formats will not settle down for more than a brief period.

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