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Kobulnicky at forefront of move
to reduce costs of academic journals
July 27, 1998

Tetrahedron Letters, an organic chemistry journal published by Elsevier, costs about $8,000 a year. Organic Chemistry Letters, a new organic chemistry journal soon to be launched by a coalition of university libraries and the American Chemical Society, will cost $2,300. And UConn's library director has played a leading role in that coalition.

Paul Kobulnicky, director of University Libraries, describes the creation of the new journal as "the first salvo against the profit-making publishers we believe responsible for the inflationary cycle." He is one of five steering committee members of the collaboration, which aims to distribute research results faster and at significantly less cost to library subscribers than other publishers.

The American Chemical Society will publish at least one new scientific journal a year for the next three years, starting with Organic Chemistry Letters, targeted for publication in 1999.

ACS, the world's largest scientific society, currently publishes 26 peer-reviewed research journals. The not-for-profit publisher is well respected in the academic community and among libraries. Its journals are both heavily cited by researchers and are considered among the more reasonably priced scientific publications.

The group Kobulnicky belongs to, known as the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), was established as a result of growing concerns among librarians and researchers over the soaring price of academic publications, particularly scientific journals.

"One of the goals of the project is to introduce competition into those areas where we know there is potential for success," Kobulnicky says.

Until now constraints on library budgets have discouraged competition. "Few publishers want to start new journals because they know there is no room for additional subscriptions in library budgets," Kobulnicky says.

The 81 participating libraries, which advised ACS by identifying subject areas of interest, will ensure purchase of the new publication.

As part of the agreement with ACS, the libraries have agreed that when subscriptions are canceled or they receive an increase in their budget, they will set aside some funds for the new titles. "The members of the coalition get the satisfaction of being part of the solution," says Rick Johnson, enterprise director for SPARC.

The journal will also be available for purchase to all research libraries.

Kobulnicky says the new coalition is more than a partnership about individual publications. "The long-term goal," he says, "Is to affect the system of scholarly communication."

Scholarly publishing is inherently different from trade or textbook publishing, he notes, because its market is restricted to academic libraries and the few scholars in a particular discipline. "Large publishers who publish in all formats don't see the difference," he says. "Their goal is to maximize profit, regardless of the effects."

Despite an average increase of nearly 7 percent in library materials budgets over the past decade, libraries have not been able to keep pace with the 12 percent annual increase in the average price of science journals, according to the Association of Research Libraries. Libraries have been forced to cancel thousands of journal subscriptions, prompting publishers to raise prices even higher to make up for the loss.

The effects are potentially devastating, according to Kobulnicky.

"Scholarly publishing is like an ecological system that must be kept in balance or else it dies," he says.

"If someone's earning too much money and the product becomes too expensive, that reduces use, which in turn reduces scholarship," he adds. "We need to protect the system so it survives."

Kobulnicky says faculty members can support the new journals by serving on the editorial boards and by submitting their manuscripts for publication.

Although the coalition is focusing on scientific publications, SPARC's Johnson says the opportunity to bring down prices in the sciences will also benefit the humanities and social sciences. "Instead of library budgets concentrating on scientific journals, as the prices come down there will be more money available for other journals and for a better balance between journals and monographs," he says. "Libraries will be able to pursue more balanced collection strategies."

The coalition is now looking for additional publishing partners among scholarly societies, university presses, government agencies, and some commercial publishers.

Gary Epling, professor and head of the chemistry department, welcomes the new journal's imminent publication but cautions that it will take some time for the new arrangement to affect the system of scholarly publishing. "It isn't going to happen overnight," he says. "Journals build up prestige over a period of decades because the audience is there and the circulation is built, and they have a guaranteed impact on a wide variety of people."

He says the involvement of the American Chemical Society - which he describes as the most prestigious chemical society in the world - will help the new publications but will not immediately spell ruin for the established journals.

"You submit an article where you think publication of that article will do the most good, and you subscribe to a journal that you think will give the most information for the money," he says. "Researchers will not stop submitting articles to other journals in protest because they're a ripoff. It's just too important to get publications seen by the right eyes."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu