BID: textos universitaris de Biblioteconomia i Documentació

Número 11, desembre 2003

The changing face of scholarly communication

[Versió catalana]

David C. Prosser

SPARC Europe

Scholarly communication should exist for the benefit of the world's research and teaching community. Authors want to share new findings with all their colleagues, while researchers, students, and other readers want access to all of the relevant literature.

However, the traditional system of scholarly communication is not working. Libraries and their institutions worldwide can no longer keep up with the increasing volume and cost of scholarly resources. Authors communicate with only those of their peers lucky enough to be at an institution that can afford to purchase or license access to their work. Readers only have access to a fraction of the relevant literature, potentially missing vital papers in their fields.

The promise of the digital revolution to shrink costs and expand access has been threatened by those publishers that have sought to maximize revenues by raising prices and restricting use. But efforts to counter this trend –employing new technologies and business models to provide wider access at lower societal cost– are underway and gaining momentum.

Involvement by the library and academic communities is critical in ensuring that these efforts succeed. Together we can develop a new system that meets the needs of librarians, researchers as authors and readers, students, and society as a whole.

The system is no longer working

Readers are finding it harder and harder to get access to the full-text of articles they need as most campuses continue to cancel journal subscriptions. Worldwide journal prices continue to rise significantly faster than inflation and library budgets. In North America, for example, research libraries spent 227% more on journals in 2002 than in 1986. In the UK, journal prices rose 158% between 1991 and 2001 compared to a 28% increase in inflation.

These increases have led to continued journal cancellations, with fewer journals being purchased by libraries. However, despite cuts in subscriptions, some publishers continue to post large profits –up to 40% in some cases– while expanding their market control through acquisitions, mergers, and the purchase of individual titles from learned and professional societies. Mergers typically result in significant increases in subscription prices.

While a growing number of journals are now available online, this access often comes at an extra cost, further stretching library budgets. Many colleges and universities cannot provide this access for their researchers and students.

Although electronic publishing is a promising avenue for scholarly research, it brings its own challenges

Some major publishers seek to restrict access to electronic information through legislation and technical protection systems and many of the electronic resources available are governed by licenses that restrict how researchers and students can use the content.

Some publishers have bundled all their electronic journals to provide additional access, but licenses for these packages tie up significant portions of library budgets. This can divert funds from subscriptions to high-quality titles from smaller publishers.

The system is changing

There is growing momentum for change in the way that we handle scholarly communications and the library and academic community is leading the efforts to create change. In particular:

Next stages

The library community can continue to help to bring about change in scholarly communication. In particular, librarians can:


The Budapest Open Access Initiative, issued on 14th February 2002 stated that “an old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good.” ( The “public good” is the opening up of the scholarly literature to all interested readers – researchers, teachers, students, administrators, funding bodies, and the general public. It will increase the impact of research already carried out and help to accelerate new discoveries. It will allow those in the developing world to read from a huge body of knowledge that they currently only have only limit access to. This public good is within our reach and by working together we can attain it.