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Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 03:05 GMT
Setting research papers free
There is a growing move to create a single global "virtual archive" of academic papers in any discipline.
Some archives do exist, the most successful being the physics archive at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), owned by the US Department of Energy, which has more than 100,000 papers and is accessed by at the very least 50,000 people every day.
One of the key participants was Stevan Harnad, Professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton.
"The problem is there's no way to send out a search engine to ask only for, say, 'research papers' or 'refereed journal research papers' - and who knows, they may not even be retrievable," he said.
"There's no way you can pull them together into a virtual journals collection. But if they are inter-operable, you can."
The idea is to have a small number of tags embedded in the papers that would give them a universal format.
And because they are on the web they are freely available - unlike subscription-only or pay-per-view commercial databases.
Professor Harnad is tweaking his CogPrints archive software so that, within six months, any university will be able to use it, free, to compile its own archives in any discipline.
But the whole impetus is coming from the academic community, in part as a backlash against the prices for journals charged by traditional publishers.
Researchers have to use journals to spread word of their work and make an impact academically.
They are not paid for the papers submitted to research journals - but the journals cost money to produce because of the "quality control" involved.
The papers are "refereed" by other specialists in the field before they are accepted, edited and then certified as published articles, upon which researchers' reputations depend.
Pressure on budgets
The refereeing is done for free, although there is a cost to administering it. But the main costs to publishers are in the editing, printing and distribution in paper form.
Robert Butler, librarian at the Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex, is no miser: he spends more per user than almost any other university library in the UK, according to new figures.
But he says periodicals have gone up in price by typically 10 to 15% a year for years.
"As you can guess this places considerable pressure, enormous pressure on university library budgets," he said.
"From time to time I write to publishers and ask them for reasons for substantial increases."
Publishers said they were keeping the cost per page fairly constant, he said.
"Their editorial boards are receiving ever-increasing numbers of papers from the academic community that they feel ought to be published so the number of issues and number of pages per issue is constantly increasing."
This has caused a global crisis. The University of Iowa will cancel some $440,000 worth of journals and other serials in 2000, blaming insufficient budget rises.
"The average cost of a journal purchased by research libraries across all fields has risen nearly 56% since 1994. In some fields, however, the increases have been even greater - biology 60%, technology 69%, and engineering 66%," it said.
Lists of proposed subscription cancellations are to be found in almost any university library science department.
In response, an alliance of libraries in the USA and Canada and now the UK have formed Sparc - the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.
It has begun creating partnerships with publishers who are developing high-quality but economical alternatives to existing high-price publications.
Pressure to change
Publishers have not been slow to see problems ahead if the virtual archive model does take off, and many already offer online versions of their products.
For example, a package such as Ideal, the International Digital Electronic Access library, offers full-text electronic access to nearly 250 journals published by Academic Press, WB Saunders and Churchill Livingstone.
Electronic-only access costs 110% of the print price. If you want print and electronic access it is at 135% of the basic price.
"As long as there is a demand for the paper version, that can continue to be sold," says Professor Harnad.
"And if the publisher produces an enhanced online version that people are willing to pay for, that can be sold too.
"But it seems to me that once you have got the electronic version available for free, people are not going to want to subscribe to the journals.
"The journals are going to start feeling the cancellation pressure, and at that point they are going to have to restructure themselves and become instead of journal publishers, quality control certifiers."
He argues that this could lead to a reduction in costs of anything up to 80%.
A key issue in whether the authors of papers will want to archive them online is copyright - some academics in discussing the matter have worried that if they publish online the version that has been peer-reviewed for a journal, they will be breaking the journal's copyright.
Professor Harnad argues that what is at issue is what he calls 'self piracy': copyright was drafted to protect the author from theft of his product - but academics would be dealing with their own work, so comparisons with the widespread net piracy of music, text or software do not apply.
If they have "foolishly" already signed that right away to a journal for a final draft accepted for publication, he says, then they should simply self-archive instead a penultimate draft, appending a list of any errata and updates.
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