Association of Research Libraries (ARL®)

ARL: A Bimonthly Report

ARL: A Bimonthly Report, no. 218 (October 2001)

Beyond Core Journals and Licenses: The Paths to Reform Scientific Publishing

by Jean-Claude Guédon, Université de Montréal

About the Author | About the Paper


Thirty years after having been detected, the serial pricing crisis now reveals itself as a deep transformation in the communication system of science, and not simply as a regrettable side consequence of apparently uncontrollable external factors, such as currency fluctuations or increases in the cost of living. More recently, the site licensing of online journals has brought about so many changes in the relationship between readers/users, libraries, and publishers that expressions such as "paradigm shift" or even "revolution" (or rather counterrevolution) are easy to marshal. In effect, and this is the basic premise of this paper, the system of science communication has been reengineered twice to the sole benefit of major, international publishers, with grievous consequences for the public and open spaces of knowledge defended by libraries. Meanwhile, research scientists in rich, elite institutions have remained largely unaware or indifferent to this whole situation, as the price spiral of journal costs does not appear to affect them directly. This is a shortsighted viewpoint, of course, as I shall try to demonstrate, but it is not widely recognized among research scientists.

To understand the double revolution that has so deeply, yet silently, transformed the communication of fundamental scientific results, it is useful to plunge back to the historical roots of scientific publishing so as to retrieve its original meaning. It is also necessary to examine what scientists try to achieve when they publish or read. In this paper, I shall limit myself to the results of research in the natural sciences and engineering that their creators wish to give away in order to achieve authority, visibility, and even prestige. I am leaving aside all publications related in some ways to patents, as well as to the social sciences and the humanities (SSH). In one case--desire to patent--we are no longer within the confines of what will be termed here the "game of science," but rather are in the realm of commercial strategies; in the other case--social sciences and humanities--we find ourselves within the kinds of games that, although analogous to natural science in many ways, remain nevertheless sufficiently different to require separate treatment. For example, citation patterns and paradigmatic structuring in the SSH do not work in the same way as in the natural sciences. I will treat SSH publishing in another, later paper.

How and Why Were Scientific Journals Created?

A Social Registry of Inventions and Innovations

Henry Oldenburg created the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665. Unlike the Journal des sçavans in Paris, the London publication did not aim so much at broadcasting news to the emerging Republic of Natural Philosophy as it tried to set itself up as the arbiter of innovations. Similar to a land registry, Phil Trans, as it is often familiarly called, wanted to act as the reference work that would allow assigning intellectual paternity to the right individual for all to see. In the 17th century, this question of intellectual paternity was the object of much attention for several reasons:

The lack of a public registry of discoveries, inventions, and innovations had often forced natural philosophers to resort to strange tactics to ensure their paternity claims, as when coded messages were broadcast to various colleagues so that they would know that some, yet undisclosed, discovery claim was being made. Natural philosophers were also limited to finding patrons so long as the lack of an efficient registration system prevented them from acting as full-fledged authors/owners who could submit their work to the verdict of an intellectual market.

With Phil Trans, all this began to change. A kind of co-optations system based on peer review began to emerge, which bestowed honor and visibility to those whose works were deemed of sufficient value to be duly registered in the printed registry. The multiplication of printed copies and their dissemination throughout Europe ensured the validity of the claim. In short, Oldenburg had invented the record of a kind of parliament of science. Through peer review, it could confer a form of intellectual nobility upon individuals. Thus was established the game of science, whereby giving away what one had discovered was paradoxically the best way to ensure one's intellectual ownership of it. Also, the incentive of giving away results, although they had been acquired after much expense in time, money, and effort, made sense because the "symbolic capital"--an expression originally coined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu--thus accumulated could then be translated into employment and other various, tangible rewards, including the earlier form of patronage.

The result of this operation was not an egalitarian republic of natural philosophy; various speculations on the best way to establish such a republic--e.g., the New Atlantis by Francis Bacon--also included a hierarchical vision of science. However, in the latter case, the hierarchy was based on an epistemological hypothesis that translated into a graduated division of labor. In Oldenburg's scheme, on the other hand, the hierarchy was based on one's ability to lay claim to intellectual ownership--a clear consequence of one's personal abilities as well as the material conditions in which the work is done. A complex mix of excellence and elitism ensued that has accompanied science ever since.

In the Gutenberg Era: The Functions of Scientific Journals

The Perspective of Scientists

Librarians have long noted that scientists often appear in two guises: authors and readers. The latter want all the documentation they need; the former publish where they can reap the maximum amount of visibility, authority, and prestige. The scientist as reader meets the problem of the cost of journals in the guise of missing titles: the library simply does not have enough money to fill everybody's complete needs; the scientist as author does not think about prices when he/she seeks the best possible evaluation through publication.

It must also be noted that scientists do not always read in the same manner. When they look for information in the course of pushing an investigation, they use investigative methods that are both pragmatic and varied. At that stage, they appear like detectives and will find the needed information through a wide variety of means: articles, of course, but preprints, e-mails, phone calls, etc. are probably used more often. On the other hand, when they write articles, scientists carefully check the boundaries between what they own and what others own. Oldenburg's registry acts fully as intended at that stage of the scientific enterprise.

Scientists want to be published in the "best" journals because they want to benefit from the "best" evaluation. This process is patently a social construct; although it tries to present itself as an objective procedure that weeds the wheat from the chaff, and while it succeeds to some extent, it cannot claim to do so perfectly or to avoid errors. It acts at best like an imperfect and somewhat unreliable filter. No amount of professional or ethical rigor can change this regrettable but, alas, unavoidable situation. If the scientific enterprise manages to achieve reliable results, it is over the medium and long range, after many, many eyeballs have scrutinized particularly strategic pieces of knowledge. However, scientists work on the short range; they get rewarded almost as quickly as they manage to get published in the right journal. For this reason, journals really act as "quick-branding" devices, with all the ambiguities that can be attached to this expression.

Those who play a role in this quick-branding procedure are generally the editors and those who assist them, such as reviewers. Together, these scientists act as gatekeepers of the scientific enterprise and, quite obviously, they play a powerful role in the scientific publishing system. Together, they form a kind of oligarchy that runs the collective registry of branded new knowledge that is published in scientific journals. However, this oligarchy is also hierarchical, for the gatekeeper of a journal like Nature certainly carries a lot more clout than his/her colleague involved in some local or even national journal, or, given the role of English nowadays, some journal written in another language.

Building the Branding Hierarchy of Journals: Some Unexpected Consequences of the Science Citation Index

How did the branding hierarchy of journals emerge? A quick answer would say that the good select the good and this is enough to understand how science got its stratified structure. However, a closer look shows that some tools were quite useful in this regard. It also shows that this stratification appears to obey some very definite agendas.

Using once more an historical approach, it is easy to remember that Bradford's Law2 was first designed to help librarians decide how to spend limited resources to be most useful to their particular constituencies. At first, it amounted to little more than a somewhat formalized observation of scientific customs: experience dictated that to follow a specialty most efficiently, a few "core" journals--5 to 10 in general--were enough. The same experience showed that collecting information more completely required much more work: an exponential growth in the number of titles surveyed only yielded an arithmetic increase in the number of useful articles.

Although a little discouraging for anyone inhabited with the passion for exhaustivity, Bradford's observation looked innocuous enough. For a given librarian, it meant that the needs of his/her local scientists could be well satisfied by looking at these individual title core lists and ensuring their presence in the local library. It was pragmatically common-sensical and did not appear threatening in the least.

The Second World War came and went. It brought about a few momentous consequences and many minor ones. Among the latter, the musings of Vannevar Bush and his hypertext prototype named "Memex" are among the best known, particularly in the world of libraries and the Internet. It also inspired Eugene Garfield's work that culminated in the establishment of the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) and the development of the Science Citation Index (SCI).

It is not particularly important to recount to this audience what the SCI is about: most readers will be intensely familiar with this extraordinary bibliographic tool; many readers will also be aware of the scientometric possibilities opened by SCI. What is not so well known, however, is that the SCI could not have been elaborated without finding a credible, yet pragmatic, way to truncate all of science publishing down to a suitable subset that would be small enough to permit the systematic tracing of citations while being extended enough to appear as the credible quintessence of science. In effect, Garfield collapsed all the little "cores" detected through the Bradford law; he then proceeded to do a series of independent checks by referring to the coverage of major disciplinary bibliographies and by doing direct interviews of well-known scientists. The result was the building of a list of "core" scientific journals that suddenly took on a life of its own.

Originally, these core journals were mainly in the hands of learned societies and scientific associations. Commercial publishers, in the late '60s, still played a relatively minor, fragmented, and ultimately secondary role in the publishing of science journals, as they had essentially done since the middle of the 19th century. The motives of commercial publishers to sustain even this minor role in scientific publishing were limited to prestige reasons and to keep an eye on potentially interesting authors that might want to write a commercially lucrative textbook or an equally profitable treatise. Periodicals rarely brought in profits. However, with the sudden emergence of a core set of journals, publishers became aware of the fact that these journals would have to be bought by every library worth its salt. In other words, the previously vaguely prestigious, financially uninteresting field of scientific periodicals had become an inelastic market that could be milked for all it was worth. Periodical prices then began to climb precipitously.

The grip of commercial publishers over science periodicals led to two independent developments: while prices were climbing, a series of mergers rapidly concentrated the industry into very few hands. Now, a big player such as Reed Elsevier controls over 1,500 titles (since acquiring Academic Press via the purchase of Harcourt Brace); Taylor & Francis controls over 800 titles since its acquisition of Gordon and Breach. At the same time, publishers began making very important connections with scientists by helping create new journals, and thus opening the door to new nominations into the hallowed circle of gatekeepers. For the publishers, such a tactic had two advantages: while it allowed for tighter relationships with elite scientists, it also allowed for competition with similar journals available from other publishers that appeared to be vulnerable.

The Libraries' Response

Libraries quickly felt the newly induced pain, but they found it more difficult to convey a forceful and coherent message to the research circles or even the research administrators. It must be said that publishers did all they could to keep librarians atomized and to prevent them from publishing useful, shared comparisons. The endless legal actions undertaken by Gordon and Breach against University of Wisconsin physicist Henry Barschall in four countries are extreme, yet symptomatic, forms of what all publishers were trying to do: cajoling, obfuscating, and, if needed, threatening. Commercial publishers managed to create a very wealthy industry out of what had been a gentlemen's publishing club a few years before.

In the end, frustration and anger did rise. Various counteractions were contemplated and some later implemented. Capping a decade of research, analysis, and discussion, in 1998 ARL established the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). SPARC's mission is to pursue various ways to reintroduce competition in this "market" that had been unwittingly transformed into a playground for particularly greedy commercial publishers by the advent of the notion of "core journals." SPARC's actions touch only a limited number of titles, but the concept of competition has been demonstrated to work and the hope is to see the demonstration catalyze an expanding movement in this direction. The success of SPARC's first publishing partnership with the American Chemical Society, Organic Letters, pitted as it is against Elsevier's Tetrahedron Letters, is indeed inspiring, as is the resignation of a whole editorial board from another Elsevier journal and its successful recreation within the auspices of Cambridge University Press. Elsevier, for its part, has been trying to assemble a new team of scientists to compete against the former editorial board--for Elsevier knows competition well--but the publisher is discovering that a scientific community may not remain so passive and pliant when it discovers some of the publishing world's harsh realities. All the financial inducements that a very rich company can command may increasingly appear hollow in this regard.

SPARC has repeatedly demonstrated that the big guys are not invulnerable, that counterattacks are possible, and that when librarians and scientists work hand in hand, the process of scientific communication (and all that it means for the evaluation of careers) can fall back into academic hands--where it belongs anyway. SPARC has also brought to light the fact that the relationship between librarians and some publishers is better characterized by the sound and fury of vicious battles, rather than the quiet and elegant atmosphere of an exclusive business club. That in itself is positive, as these publishers have no interest in showing that they are locked into struggles where they obviously do not play very palatable parts. In short, SPARC is doing much to remind all partners in research activities that the present situation of scientific publishing is anything but normal.

The Advent of Digitization and the Internet and the Second Counterrevolution in Scientific Publishing

The advent of digitization, coupled with the worldwide deployment of the Internet, has brought about a new communication and publication environment that is displacing print from many of its traditional functions. The process is already quite visible, as are some of its consequences. The arena of scientific publishing actually offers one of the most advanced examples of what to expect when digitization cum networks occurs: not only are the technical conditions of publishing deeply transformed, but also their legal, economic, and ultimately social dimensions. In short, a deeply transformative transition--a revolution in fact--is taking place: moving away from selling journal volumes through subscriptions and within the constraints of copyright law, commercial publishers, inspired by the software industry, have introduced licensing contracts. Libraries, as is now well understood, no longer own anything; they become mere "knowledge pumps" and instead of opening up a free, public space for readers, they find themselves saddled with the unlikely task of policing access to "legitimate users." The fact that publishers do not yet expect a close monitoring of who can or cannot use the local knowledge pump changes the situation very little. Having effectively managed to transform libraries into surrogate cops shows the extent of the publishers' advance; it also demonstrates that the digital revolution really amounts to a counterrevolution.

Hit by this unexpected development, libraries found themselves rather poorly equipped to respond effectively. The new contractual context required a level of legal talents that was rarely present among librarians, and the highest managerial echelons of large research libraries found themselves devoting an inordinate amount of time mastering and (hopefully) solving contractual matters that they had never encountered before. In the process, they discovered that they had to negotiate from scratch most of what copyright law for years had provided as a matter of course, such as fair use. Not surprisingly, the need to share experiences quickly became obvious and the realization that the large commercial publishers played on a scale that was inaccessible to most if not all libraries led to new and expanded roles for consortia. By pooling the resources of dozens of libraries--so went the thinking--some financial and therefore negotiating clout could be regained. However, the specificity of scientific publishing protects publishers: if you want to access journal X, journal Y simply will not do and X's publisher knows this well. As a result, the libraries' elbowroom is very limited and, correspondingly, the financial savings obtained through consortia seem to have been limited on the whole.

One of the more recent and most efficient consortia has been the Canadian project generally known in English as CNSLP (Canadian National Site Licensing Project). It has managed to inject an exceptionally high level of competition among publishers by sticking to an "all or nothing" strategy, by putting publishers on notice that the amount of money is limited, and by warning them that they have been ranked according to some internal formula such that, if they are high enough on the list, they may get one chance, but one chance only, at closing a deal. This strategy has led to some significant reductions in costs, but this success did come at a price:

Of course, a consortium does not necessarily have to envision itself as the cure-all of all the needs of participating libraries; rather, it may see itself as the provider of an interesting subset of titles that are obtained for all participating institutions at a rather good price. Libraries can then complete their local collection needs according to the particular needs of the constituencies they serve. But this division of labor does not resolve the serial pricing crisis and it may even weaken consortia by putting a certain amount of emphasis on the fragmented nature of the demand emanating from a wide variety of institutions in a 64-library organization that is national in scope.

The experience acquired by CNSLP ultimately shows both the possibilities and the limitations of consortia. It also points to the need for consortia to keep closely informed of each other's results and strategies--a situation that publishers, once again, try to discourage by requesting a certain degree of discretion over the terms of signed deals. The main benefits of consortia, in fact, may lie more with the transformation of libraries from isolated collection fortresses into more and more networked (and hopefully collaborative) attitudes, than in any financial advantage. It may be that, through the experience of consortia, libraries are learning some of the tricks of distributed intelligence and this development may turn out to be more fundamental and important than the limited financial results obtained.

Consortia also raise troubling questions, of which two are particularly important:

Open Archives and Other Subversive Initiatives

Scientists also took note of the digital transformations. While most quickly grasped the added ease to access and retrieve digitized articles, a few also started to experiment with new tools. This has led to a series of interesting projects, the most significant of which has been the Open Archives Initiative (OAI). OAI finds its roots in a physics preprint server launched in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Designed to create a faster, more efficient exchange of preprints--a working custom that is particularly prevalent among physicists (but not exclusively)--the Los Alamos server rapidly demonstrated that the communication phase of science was quite separate from the evaluative phase of science. That these two functions had remained confused together so long was largely because print demanded it. This decoupling between communication and evaluation also helped the community to realize that behind hundreds of core journal titles, big publishers actually deal with articles. As a result, journal titles appear tied to the branding process all the more exclusively.

The advent of Ginsparg's open archive led to a flurry of experiments corresponding to an astounding range of diverse and even contradictory (not to say conflicting) agendas. These experiments can be summarized as follows:

ChemWeb, although modest in its present scope (fewer than 300 articles are on its site as of this writing), is also symptomatic of a very important trend: publishers now realize that future competition in scholarly publishing will actually take place on the evaluation front. With the branding of quality now firmly linked to traditional, core journals, the big publishers have held a firm and majority grip on evaluation of researchers and their performance. This has translated into an almost unlimited capacity to boost journal prices to incredible levels. With digitization, they are already thinking beyond the licensing business--after all, that will last only so long--to plan new modes of market control. My hypothesis is that maintaining a dominant voice in the evaluation process will remain the publishers' trump card, however the process will be transposed, translated, or adapted. This strategy necessarily rests on maintaining a strong alliance with a significant set of elite scientists. Conversely, weakening the grip of commercial publishers over the evaluation process will take the form of diluting the power of journal titles as branding devices either by adapting the process to new forms of publishing and/or by revising the evaluation processes themselves, for example, by demonstrating that better evaluation processes exist and can be implemented.

To Conclude, Some Proposals That, Although Modest, Are Anything but Swiftian in Spirit

We still stand in Oldenburg's shadow. Designed to register claims to originality, inventiveness, and creativity, the scientific journal has turned into a complex system totally enmeshed with commercial interests which have partially distorted its original functions. In particular, it has become ever more difficult to separate scientific excellence from financial elitism--a situation that has been particularly hurtful to third-world countries, but also to many institutions within richer countries. In particular, it has probably contributed to creating a "research divide" that ought to be closely investigated.

Librarians find themselves occupying a particularly strategic role in this context, and not only because they have suffered most from the state of affairs imposed by large commercial publishers through the two revolutions (or counterrevolutions) sketched out above. SPARC, of course, demonstrates a will to do more than adapt to a situation that, otherwise, would appear to be unavoidable, almost fateful in nature. However, SPARC is still young and it covers only some dimensions of scientific publishing. As a result, it ought to extend its tactics and several new objectives ought to be studied and, if suitable, pursued:

  1. Librarians should stand squarely and strongly behind the OAI. In that spirit, they should support all initiatives that tend to liberate content either immediately or after a while. They should also negotiate long-term archiving of private, commercial digital journals with this objective in mind.

  2. Open archives allow greater monitoring of the kind of articles being used and, as a result, the observation post that big publishers have been creating for themselves could no longer be monopolized by them. On the contrary, the usage statistics and their interpretation could become associated activities led by scientists, librarians, and specialists of scientometrics for the common good.

  3. Open archives can also help develop new and better evaluation tools of researchers and their performance. Scientists should retain a leading voice in evolving these evaluation tools, in conjunction with administrators and with the support of research libraries. The point here is to ensure the development of better branding devices than the mechanical use of impact factors transposed from journal titles to scientific authors, and to dilute or weaken (not to be confused with destroying) the power of journal titles as branding devices.

  4. Creating new gatekeeping devices and evaluation tools and organizing, as a distributed network of libraries, very wide forms of cross-linking are nothing but ways to reopen the traditional tasks of librarians in a new mode; they are ways to reassert the "epistemological engineering" function of librarianship in the context of cyberspace.

In the last 30 years, scientific publishing has witnessed a very dynamic situation characterized by a high degree of tactical and strategic initiatives, particularly on the part of commercial publishers who have shown themselves very creative in this regard. Simply reacting and adapting as best as one can to these new situations and contexts cannot lead to durable or even satisfactory solutions. More proactive attitudes must be developed that will bring researchers, librarians, and administrators into a new alliance where common strategies can be devised. These will not only counter commercial publishers' plans, but will even precede them as the balance of initiatives starts shifting back in favor of the academic and public research institutions. Librarians are uniquely poised to bring this new coalition into being.

—Copyright © 2001 Jean-Claude Guédon


  1. See Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995).
  2. Samuel C. Bradford, "Sources of Information on Specific Subjects," Engineering 137 (January 26, 1934): 85-6.
  3. Kenneth Frazier, "The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the 'Big Deal'," D-Lib Magazine 7, no. 3 (March 2001),

To cite this article

Jean-Claude Guédon, "Beyond Core Journals and Licenses: The Paths to Reform Scientific Publishing," ARL, no. 218 (October 2001): 1–8,