Production, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge is fundamental to all fields of research. Scholarly publishing, in the form of journal articles, conference proceedings, and monographs, is a primary means by which knowledge is distributed to professors, researchers, graduate students, and the public.
Unfortunately, scholarly publishing has in recent years entered a period of crisis. While the proliferation of research information has encouraged a rapid increase in the number of scholarly journals (from 103,700 worldwide in 1986 to 161,000 in 1999), the capacity of academic institutions to acquire scholarly publications has declined. For example, monograph acquisitions by university libraries have actually dropped by about 26% since the mid-1980s. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) estimates that member libraries were spending 170% more in 1999 to buy 6% fewer journals than in 1986.
Government cuts to post-secondary education funding have played a major role in this crisis by reducing budgets for university library acquisitions. Other factors, such as increasing journal prices, have also had a detrimental effect on scholarly publishing. Journal subscription prices have risen dramatically in recent years, especially in scientific and medical fields. Between 1986 and 2003, the cost of journals increased by 315%. In Canada, this situation is exacerbated by an unfavourable exchange rate, as about 80% of journal subscriptions are priced in US dollars. A study conducted in 2002 found that even though Canadian library expenditures have increased, purchasing power for libraries dropped between 21% and 32%. The rising cost of “core” subscriptions means that researchers in all fields often have less access to material in their fields.
The increased cost of journal subscriptions is largely the result of commercial publishing companies recognising profit potential in certain areas of scholarly publishing, acquiring prestigious journal titles in those areas, and then raising prices in order to realise higher profits. Because the prestige associated with high profile publications is an important factor in evaluation and promotion, many scholars feel obligated to continue publishing in such journals, despite the overall detrimental effect high journal prices have on access to knowledge.
High journal prices within particular academic fields have consequences for scholarly publishing as a whole. Rapidly escalating prices for science, technology, and medicine journals mean that more library funds are required to sustain subscriptions in those areas. This prevents acquisition growth in other fields, such as the humanities and social sciences, and even leads to subscription cancellations. As a result, scholars in the humanities and social sciences not only have access to fewer resources in their fields, but have fewer options for publishing their work as the monograph market shrinks. Monographs traditionally serve as an important early publishing opportunity, so shrinking demand particularly disadvantages academics in the early stages of their careers.
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