Since 1985, Harvard libraries increased spending on serial publications by 162 percent, while the total number of serials they purchased rose only 7 percent. Part of this disparity reflects the addition of electronic versions of journals, yet it also represents the expanding gap between the price of information and the ability of libraries to purchase it – a gap that demands new models of scholarly communication. The Harvard library community recently gathered to explore the issue at a program called Transforming Scholarly Communication. The meeting was aimed at raising awareness in the library community in anticipation of taking these issues to faculty and graduate students.

Mary Case, director of the office of scholarly communications for the association of research libraries, said that the current system is unsustainable and that libraries must play a key role in effecting change. According to Case, the consolidation of publishers and the rise in commercial, rather than not-for-profit, publications has been one factor in higher prices. With commercial publishers controlling the market, a publishing cycle is created that supports the publishers but leaves scholars with little control over their work – and leaves institutions with high prices to pay in order to make the work accessible.

Case was instrumental in starting the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of libraries that is working to build a more competitive scholarly communication marketplace. SPARC focuses on enhancing access to peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and medical research. The group works to strengthen not-for-profit publications, create competition in the form of alternative journals, and negotiate favorable copyright terms.

According to the workshop speaker, Marc Kirschner, Carl W. Walter Professor of Cell Biology and head of the Department of Cell Biology at the Medical School, changing the norms of a culture in which publishing is linked to reputation, job opportunities, and tenure is a daunting challenge. The current system of publishing is so ingrained that faculty are often reluctant to try alternative methods of publication or encourage students and colleagues to take the risk.

Speaker Markus Meister, Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, advocated free online access to scientific journals. He described the disadvantages of the current publishing cycle, which begin, Meister said, with institutions helping to fund scholars’ research. Once an article is selected for publication the scholars often pay the journals to have their material peer-reviewed and published. At the same time the scholars sign away the copyright to their work. To access the materials, institutions must purchase costly subscriptions to print journals and licenses for the journal in electronic format. Meister supports an alternative, nonprofit approach to online publishing in which scientists pay only a nominal fee for their articles to undergo review by named peers and be published electronically.

“This is really about intellectual property,” said Jeffrey Horrell, associate librarian of Harvard College for collections, “We need to find ways that the scholars can assert their rights over their material. Librarians will not solve this problem, authors and scholars will.”