Librarians Protest Skyrocketing Periodical Prices

FACED with the escalating costs of scientific journals and periodicals, some university librarians are fighting back.

Late last year, Donald Koepp, librarian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., canceled 50 journals from one publisher. Mr. Koepp, who wrote to the publisher to explain the library's cancellations, called the subscription increases "shocking."

At the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the price of one serial subscription increased from $17,000 to $19,000 in one year. Budget cuts forced the university to cancel $230,000 worth of subscriptions last summer.

In the past 15 years, the price of serial publications has increased 400 percent, according to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, D.C. Although universities have increased expenditures on journals by 240 percent during the same period, they haven't kept up with rising costs.

"Information is becoming a valuable commodity, and commercial publishing has become big business" says Richard De Gennaro, the librarian at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass.

A few profit-oriented multinational firms have taken over scientific publishing, Mr. De Gennaro says. These journals are increasing in price most rapidly. One of the steepest recent increases was for a subscription to the "International Journal of Solids and Structures." The 1991 subscription price was $584. In 1992, the price jumped 169 percent to $1,572.

Publishers say the increases are needed to cover rising production costs resulting from the global recession and an upturn in the number of articles being published per issue.

"There's simply no relationship to reality," responds Duane Webster, executive director of ARL. "There seem to be patterns of exorbitant price increases on the part of certain off-shore, commercial, scientific publishers who have in the past found that they can increase their prices without resistance in the market."

Resistance is beginning to build, however. A group of librarians have banded together recently to take a stand against the skyrocketing costs of serials.

In February, 19 research university librarians held a weekend retreat to develop an action agenda. "We decided that it was time to do something," says Marcia Tuttle, serials librarian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who helped organize the conference. The group is known as the Aqueduct Group, after the conference center in Chapel Hill where the retreat was held.

`WE feel that the editors, and the editorial boards, and the authors don't know what libraries are paying for journals," Ms. Tuttle says. "They don't realize that so many of them are four-figure subscription rates. What we want to do is to tell these people what's going on."

The group also intends to let publishers know that librarians have run out of patience with "outrageous" annual increases. "As long as libraries will continue to pay whatever price the publisher sets on a journal, the publisher is going to continue raising it," Tuttle says.

The Aqueduct Group is now distributing its action agenda to other serial librarians at research universities and calling on them to resist the high prices. The group recommends that libraries write to publishers when canceling subscriptions and let them know the reason.

The Aqueduct Group's agenda is getting attention throughout the academic community, Mr. Webster says. "What's particularly important about the Aqueduct Group," he says, "is that they really represent the front-line libraries who are out there purchasing the materials."

Acquisitions librarians have been generally sympathetic with publishers in the past, Webster says. "For those folks to say, 'Hey, there do seem to be abuses present in the system... .' is a very important measure of the temperature of the water. And it seems to be boiling."

But it's a tall order, he says, to expect research libraries to act as a more coherent market and influence publishers. "There's also certain antitrust characteristics to it," he warns. "It's a thin line between trying to mount a consumer protest and being accused of antitrust behavior."

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