Reclaiming What We Own:
Expanding Competition in Scholarly Publishing

Plenary address to the Ninth Conference
of the Association of College & Research Libraries;
Detroit, Michigan, 11 April, 1999

Michael L Rosenzweig
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Evolutionary Ecology Research and
Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Arizona

It is really happening now, and without you it would be a flop! On behalf of Evolutionary Ecology Research, I thank you all for your support.

A wag told me I ought to come in costume dressed as Moses because I was leading the Children of the Libraries out of the publishing houses of bondage. Besides, I already have the beard and the background. I even have the staff. But I decided the image was overkill, and maybe a bit too lighthearted. After all, this is serious business.

Several commercial publishers have so emphasized the maximization of profit that they have restricted the flow of knowledge. In so doing, they have exiled themselves from the academic enterprise. If they actually produced that knowledge, maybe we could forgive them. But library clients actually produce it, and taxpayers pay for almost all of it.

Placing blame won't help. We are here both to take back the hijacked cargo and to protect it from from future raids. To that end, I want to contribute the story of Evolutionary Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology Research. I believe that our story has two kinds of value. It illustrates much of the problem and it can illuminate a great deal of what needs to be done to solve it for good.

In late 1984, I began working with a fine English commercial publisher to create a new biology journal. Chapman & Hall was Charles Dickens publisher, and Anthony Trollope's too. It had 150 yrs of proud accomplishments to its credit. And it was acutely aware of its dual role as profitmaker and disseminator of knowledge and of culture. I never signed an agreement with Chapman & Hall our relationship was based entirely on old fashioned trust.

Evolutionary Ecology started as a Smythe-sewn quarterly of three signatures each issue. Libraries paid $100/yr and individuals, $35.

Then in 1987, Chapman & Hall suffered a hostile stock takeover at the hands of International Thomson Corporation. ITC paid threefold what others thought Chapman & Hall stock was worth. Why? Because they priced the stock based on what they planned to charge for Chapman & Hall publications, not on what C&H charged. And ITC planned to charge a lot more! My honeymoon with Chapman & Hall was over.

Prices soon began to rise. Yes, the journal grew in size. But the sewn-signature binding was replaced by the much cheaper perfect binding. And there were other signs of cost cutting. Skilled employees left and were replaced by tyros who made a lot of mistakes. Then, these were replaced by independent contractors. Chapman & Hall did not have to pay them any benefits nor even to provide them any desk space. I would send the maunuscripts to a copy editor who did not even live in London, let alone work for Chapman & Hall. That person handled further communication with authors and with the typesetters (who worked in Bombay) and a printer (whose plant was in Wales). After printing, journals went to a mailing house in the south of England with international offices. All Chapman & Hall did was collect and dispense the money. Your money. There was no risk because, as you well know, subscribers pay in advance.

Much later I discovered that ITC kept most of that money for themselves. For example, in 1998, our journal had some 400 subscribers worldwide. All costs of producing and distributing the journal amounted to less than $80,000. But subscription revenues were somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000. Chapman & Hall never shared this information with me; I had to do a little research to obtain my estimates. But I assure you, they are pretty close to the money!

For a decade, prices are rising and I am squealing my little head off. I doubt that it did much good, although I like to think I may have minimized the inflation of our journal's prices at least a bit. Basically however, I was powerless, absorbing lame excuses one after another. "Paper costs are up, mailing is up; typesetting costs more; EE has more pages per year." All of these things were true, but they had little to do with the price increases. The truth rather lay in the unrestrained greed of profiteers who knew they had us all locked in. How else can you explain a 275% markup on goods paid for in advance?

And the publishers say they add value! Horse-droppings. We add the value, you and I do. We add it as taxpayers. We add it with our hard scholarly labor and our dearly won library budgets that add the final element to value access. We add the value. We supply the raw material. We pay the copy-editors, the typesetters, the printer and the mailer. They merely handle the money. And they have been taking much more than a fair share. 275% markup. That's the same as a 73.3% profit margin. Would you deal with a money changer who demanded almost 75 cents of every dollar that you asked him to change into pounds sterling?

Then, a year ago, the sky fell in. ITC sold Chapman & Hall to Wolters Kluwer. My dream of lower prices changed from fantasy to foolishness. There was every reason to expect further price inflation.

I had had enough. My editors had had enough. We pleaded: Sell us to a university press. Please sell us. But Kluwer refused. So, guided through the uncharted desert by our fiery attorney a pillar of the community we girded our loins, put sandals on our feet, took up our staffs and set out for the Sea of Red Ink.

Kluwer could not believe it at first. But, once they did, they expressed a certain amount of displeasure. How could I blame them? I think they bought the Brooklyn Bridge. They apparently believed they would acquire me, the entire editorial board, and all the backlog of unprocessed manuscripts on which we had worked so hard. Our lawyers did not agree. Neither did our authors. About 90% decided to submit their mss to EER rather than to EE. We have to find a way to tell this part of the story to all academics. And we will. Publishers now claim far more rights than they actually have. And most academics simply believe them.

At first we planned to be print only. We'd produce an Internet version in 2000 or 2001. Then a number of things happened to change my mind. For only a little extra, our typesetter could give us PDF files for an internet version. The State of Arizona's tax office looked favorably on us if we had an internet service, allowing us to reduce the journal's price by another 5%. And librarians were using the internet to help battle costs; some would be happiest if they could subscribe to an internet version and forgo the printed copies entirely. So, we took the plunge. We set the internet subscription rate at $272, and the combination at $305 with postage. We have already issued our first three numbers. By contrast, in 1998, Evolutionary Ecology had cost $800 for a combination subscription and an internet-only rate was not available. In 1999, EE's rate is $777 for print only, although I have yet to see an issue of this year's volume.

EER also subscribes to SPARC's idea that author's should own the copyright to their own works. Ours do. And EER has a policy that individuals should not have to pay any profit to the publisher for subscribing to our journal. Any person who belongs to a subscribing institution can have a print copy of EER for $33 including postage in the USA. And the postal surcharge for other countries is only $8/year.

But I must tell you something immensely important. We are trusting you to be extremely careful about the internet-only subscription. Use the rate to extend EER's presence and circulation, not diminish it. If you use it to replace what had been a print subscription to EE, then you will be undercutting our image among potential authors. We will not be able to continue to recruit the fine mss that have characterized our contributions so far.

For some reason, authors have not yet made the emotional adjustment to an internet journal. They want to see their work in old fashioned print. Moreover, internet articles cannot be efficiently read from the internet. Everyone makes a hard copy anyway. And no one takes a laptop into the tub for a relaxing read.  Imagine if we were to lose the joys and serendipity of browsing through real library shelves.To quote John Cairns, ("Matters of Life and Death", 1997, PrincetonUP) "There are few pleasures in life so steadily exciting as the voyages of discovery that are made in libraries. It is the book next to the one you first reach for that makes the day and leads you to the unknown land....A Persian proverb says that time spent fishing is not deducted from your life-span. Somehow I feel that time spent in a library may actually be added on."  I suspect all of you agree with that. But be honest now did you ever expect to hear it from a guy who, in 1965, did his PhD dissertation usuing a computer?

Now I know that many of you believe that the Internet is a great blessing and constitutes the future of written material. Maybe I agree with you. I certainly agree that the Net can cut your costs. But not very much it turns out. And cutting your costs is exactly what we are doing. We have cut them about 62%. Let our experiment proceed with no extra burden.

And I must tell you that Internet-only is a burden just now. For one thing, licensing is a time-consuming mess and that is true despite the fact that a subscription to EER carries with it the unlimited right to make course packs and distribute the journal to all those affiliated with the subscriber. For another, ecologists have been using computers for decades and they do not entirely trust them. Thirty years ago, electronic prophets assured us that computers would preserve all our data for ages to come. Those who trusted them were burned badly. Their data lies unusable, on obsolete media such as paper tape, punch cards and magnetic tape that no operating system remembers how to read. I do believe the Smithsonian has a punch card reader, but it is a precious artifact of times gone by. You would no more think of using it than of sitting in that 240 yr old chair in which John Hancock presided over the Continental Congress. We know, and you will soon discover, that computer engineers do not get paid to manage stagnant technology. They press ahead, maintaining very little of what was so new and thrilling just a few years ago. The situation makes archiving a chaos today.

Like librarians, ecologists have commitees studying how to insure reliable archiving. Meanwhile, we are printing EER on acid-free paper. The print version will surely last for centuries. So spend the extra $33 and display EER proudly on your shelves. Then encourage the established society journals to help you pioneer the new technology. When reputable society journals such as Ecology and the American Naturalist appear as Internet-only journals, EER will gladly follow their lead.

Anyhow, back to the exodus. Here we were approaching the Sea of Red Ink with the publishers in hot pursuit. Our lawyers were kind but not quite free. Our typesetter, copyeditor and printer have to eat. Our Internet Service Provider, accountant and bookkeeper all wanted to be paid too. EER needed customers.

And then SPARC came, and commanded, and the sea is splitting. We can almost see the dry land before us. Maybe, if I wear a Moses outfit, Ken Frazier should wear a God outfit?

Anyhow, I can summarize EER's situation pretty easily. EER has great contributions. The system to disseminate them is rolling along. And the libraries care. It is all quite heavenly.

But heaven's gate has not yet closed. Your library can still join the movement and say proudly that it acted when action was necessary, that it became part of the answer, not just part of the complaining. If it has not already, get your library to subscribe to EER. Don't wait. Get in touch with us. Send academic editors the reassuring message that you will support them when they support you.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. EER has already received enough support to complete this year. Renewals will insure that we continue to publish in the year 2000. But we still face a loss for 1999 of some $15K to $20K. That amounts only to another 50 or 60 subscriptions, subscriptions you and only you can supply. Can you imagine the terror we will strike in the corporate hearts of the multibillion dollar profiteers if, at the end of our first year, I can say and you can trumpet EER broke even!

But that will not end the problem. EER is not a panacea. If you expect it to solve all our problems, then it will solve none of them. EER must become the vanguard of a movement to recruit academic editors to their professional responsibilities.

Fine say you. We'll publicize, publicize, publicize. Good, but that won't be enough. To understand why, let me let you in on what I really do. I am neither a journal publisher, nor a journal editor. I am an evolutionary ecologist. I investigate austere mathematical theories to help understand and conserve biodiversity. I write books about it and they sell well. I research the ecology of desert rodents in field experiments designed to encourage the rodents to teach us about animals in general. I study the massive plant diversity of South Africa's and Western Australia's heaths and I work out its explanation. I dip into the fossil record to study the tempo and patterns that life follows as it elaborates itself. I am writing and doing research to convince conservationists to redesign their entire field. I have considerable evidence that it must transform itself to a science that I call Reconciliation Ecology. And I teach undergraduates and graduates at the U of A, a large state university where teaching is taken most seriously indeed. Doesn't that sound like I need another job to do?

In fact, except for the teaching, I have had to shelve all my scholarly work. I have replaced them with:

It's all been great fun. Nevertheless, I have a feeling it will not attract too many of my fellow editors. They may want a bit more coddling than I. It will be good for prices and dissemination if editors know that their path has been paved and that it won't take much work to move away from the commercial giants. What can librarians do to lure my colleagues out of the confines of their slave quarters? Lots.

Through SPARC, librarians can certify the quality of proposed new competing journals actually act as a clearing house, so that acquisition librarians can be confident in their subscriptions. SPARC did this in our case and I am sure it helped.

Through SPARC, librarians can provide a guide through the maze of incorporation, system set up and follow through. It really is not very difficult. But it takes a hell of a lot of time if you are on your own. Academics will need someone to say "Now get a lawyer and an accountant, now incorporate, now get an internet domain, now pick a production team, here's how to set prices, here's how to apply for mailing privileges, here's the software you will need, here's a model order blank to use, a model invoice and a model mailing list. If anything is unclear, just call and we will give you the answer or get it for you." It sure isn't an intellectual experience to wade through USPS regulations, tax laws and articles of incorporation. It is not. But if SPARC makes it easy to do, many more will do it.

Through SPARC, librarians can maintain service pools of reliable printers, typesetters, copyeditors and ISPs. SPARC can explain paper weight and quality, binding methods and mailing materials. None of these things is difficult. But they are time consuming. And it sure isn't an intellectual experience to search for a printer or a typesetter or a reliable ISP to handle archiving and security. It sure isn't an intellectual experience to search for a safe and appropriate envelope in which to mail a journal. It is not. But if SPARC makes it easy to do, many more will do it.

Through SPARC, librarians can express their interest in getting alternative journals indexed by the services that specialize in this service. Without the advice of SPARC, the decision to index a new journal may take up to five years. How can a new journal compete for the best manuscripts if the editor has to admit that the journal is not yet in any of the standard indices? Here again, EER has benefited immensely from SPARC's help; it is indexed by almost all the accepted services, such as Biological Abstracts, Zoological Record and Environmental Abstracts.

Through SPARC, librarians working with publishers and academics can develop and maintain a fair internet license agreement. You would not believe how hard we worked to produce an agreement containing all the elements we could afford to authorize. But most libraries have wanted to renegotiate some of its terms. And a number of state governments impose restrictions that fairly beg the little guy to turn tail and defer to the mighty giants. Since, in the long run, it will be the states that benefit most, one would hope that librarians, united, would be able to convince them not to shoot themselves in the foot, but to authorize a standard license that all can agree to.

Through SPARC, librarians can force the clarification of the legal rights of editors and authors. Today, the first thing a rebellious editorial board now faces is claims of ownership by the publisher that greatly exceed what it could actually defend in court. I need you to imagine the terror in my and my wife's hearts when our friend and lawyer advised us that we could lose everything we own if we were sued. To prevent that, SPARC can develop a set of guidelines for how to act and what to say when leaving a commercial publisher so that nothing will be actionable. It can discourage editors and authors from needlessly relinquishing their rights by explaining them and making clear that it is unethical to give them up. But, at some point, it will have to go to court to settle the legal uncertainties that now exist.

Through SPARC, librarians can find out quickly what to cancel and what to switch to and when. One of the things a new journal cannot do is tell libraries to cancel a subscription. That would be interfering with a contract, a legal tort. But you could tell each other to do it, and you must. In far too many cases, the new journal gets added but the old one is retained with no change in pricing. What good does that do? If commercial publishers are ever to adopt competitive pricing policies, they will need to be convinced that librarians are organized enough to pluck their old journals away, one by one. Then you will see something dramatic happen.

Once we have a system, then we have to proselytize and educate academics. Foment freedom! I must tell you that academics have no idea what's going on. They do not know what libraries are going thru just now. They have no sense of what a publisher does or how inexpensive it is to do it. They don't even know about their own rights and privileges. When it comes to publishing, they are an uninformed herd, fed, milked and slaughtered at will. And happy to be of service!

At first, you might feel daunted by the size of this herd. But we need not start with the hundreds of thousands of yeoman academics who produce the manuscripts. We can target a much, much smaller group, the several thousand editors who work alongside a few commercial publishers. Getting to them will not be so tough their names are already published in the journals they edit, and their snail- and e-mail addresses won't be that difficult to compile. They need to learn what is going on and how they can protect their authors and their professions from the restricted flow of information that now plagues us.

All this can amount to a homeostatic system. In other words it can regulate itself. Now, in a sense, we already have a homestatic system. But it is one that it admits only stockholders as stakeholders. The devil with dissemination. Forget about scholarship and the world of the intellect. To blazes with the public's right to access the information they have paid to create. Build profit. Make as much money as you can! Every paper is a virtual monopoly and if you can find a way to own it, you can charge whatever the libraries can bear to pay. If some publishing house still allows any of the outmoded values into its pricing system, terrific, it is a target of opportunity. Buy it and get prices up to where they can be. Taking full advantage is not illegal. It is simply good business.

The homestatic system implicit in our remarks is more complex and varied in its goals. It admits many stakeholders and sets up a checks-and-balances scheme to see that all are served. It views academic publishing as a partnership among editors, authors, publishers, libraries and the public at large. We must make it the ethical alternative. Then we must pursue a 3-C's policy toward those publishers who refuse to cooperate with it: chastize them, castigate them and censure them. Make it clear to academics that these publishers are ethically suspect and that it is consequently ethically dubious to publish anything with them, or to edit their mss or to review for them.

Thank you all again for all you have been doing. Not just for EER, but for all your steady support of scholarship over the generations.