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  March 12, 2001

In Battle Over Journal, Academic
David Takes On Publishing Goliath

'Rogue editor' is not the first descriptor that comes to mind upon meeting Larry Hightower. But that's what this normally mild-mannered scholar has become.

As editor-in-chief of an academic journal published by a major commercial publishing house, Hightower found himself confronted by a set of ethics dominated by the pursuit not of knowledge but of profit. He decided to fight back, and in doing so joined a small but growing number of scholars - 'rogue editors' - who have taken a stand against the publishing giants.

Hightower, a UConn professor of molecular and cell biology, is an internationally recognized scholar in the field of cell stress, the study of how organisms defend themselves against environmental assaults.

This relatively new field, which spans a number of disciplines, including biochemistry and genetics, grew rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, with scholarly articles being published initially in a range of discipline-specific journals.

At about the same time, a struggle was emerging in the area of academic publishing, as publishers in pursuit of ever greater profits hiked the prices of specialty journals and arbitrarily bundled electronic journal subscriptions together, wreaking havoc on libraries' budgets.

So when Hightower was approached to begin a new journal in the mid-1990s, he was skeptical. "Libraries were not buying new journals," he says. "It was a terrible time to start a journal."

But dedication to his field won him over. "The literature was very scattered," he says, "and there was a need for a journal to keep the core more cohesive."

Cell Stress and Chaperones, A Comprehensive Journal of Stress Response Biology, was launched in 1996, with Hightower as editor-in-chief, under a contract with Churchill Livingstone, a small publisher in the U.K.

Hightower hired Helen Neumann as a part-time editorial assistant, and together they undertook the work of soliciting and selecting manuscripts, leaving the tasks of copy editing, printing and distribution in the hands of the publisher.

Battling a Buyout
For two years, the arrangement worked well. But from the moment Churchill Livingstone was bought out by Harcourt Brace, the interaction began to deteriorate.

Hightower and Neumann started to feel uneasy when copy editors began failing to return calls. Decisions were no longer made at the publisher's Edinburgh office, but had to be referred to London. And the Journal was not acquiring new subscribers.

In the summer of 1999, Hightower's worst fears were realized when Harcourt gave six months' notice of its intention to drop Cell Stress from its list of journals. Although the Journal was academically well respected, the editors were at the publishers' mercy.

"The publishers had edited their journal portfolios and decided which ones were 'keepers'," Hightower says. "We were not making them enough money."

Hightower and Neumann were in a bind. To continue publishing commercially, "we would have had to try to convince another publisher to take on a journal that Harcourt had already decided wasn't profitable," he says.

Yet any break in publishing would have spelled death to the Journal. "If there is ever a break in the continuity of a journal, it sends red flags to the academic community," Hightower says. "Scholars will no longer send their manuscripts there."

The editors had no legal protection in the contract: under its terms, the Journal was owned outright by the publishers. Luck, however, was on their side.

Some months previously, the informal group of academics that had generated the Journal had established themselves as the Cell Stress Society International. Registered as a non-profit agency and incorporated, the Society adopted Cell Stress as its official journal and had the legal status to be a potential owner.

But when the publishers were asked if they would donate the Journal to a non-profit society, says Hightower, "all of a sudden the Journal became an asset." The asking price for ownership was beyond the Society's reach.

A former UConn colleague, Barry Hall, put Hightower in touch with a small publisher, Allen Press, that specializes in producing academic journals at a reasonable price. Yet without the copyright, neither Hightower nor the Society had any legal claim to the journal.

Turning the Tide
It was a chance meeting with a former psychology professor now working for the press, Bob Kidd, that helped Hightower and Neumann understand the differences in culture between academe and commercial publishing.

Publishers of academic journals, Kidd pointed out, rely on the scientific community for their raw materials - the manuscripts and the reviewing process. They may appear unresponsive - after all, for a business time is money - yet they do not want to get a bad reputation among the very people on whom they depend.

"The scales fell from our eyes," says Neumann. "We'd been seeing things from an academic point of view, but the first time Larry stood up to the publishers, the whole pack of cards collapsed."

"What Helen and I have become is small business people, and academics by and large are not trained in the techniques of small business and interacting with other businesses," adds Hightower. "As soon as we began to interact with Harcourt not as academics but as business people, everything changed."

Eventually, Harcourt agreed to donate the Journal to the Society at no cost, other than a couple of hundred dollars for shipping back issues to the United States.

Despite this victory, however, the harm done to the Journal was just beginning to emerge. When the December 1999 issue was published, it had fewer pages than usual and contained only some of the articles the editors had promised to publish. And during the next few months, it transpired that not only had the publishers not marketed Cell Stress since taking it over, they had informed subscription agencies it had ceased publication.

Still, thanks to a special millennium issue in January 2000, the Journal's reputation for excellence, and the support of Allen Press, the obstacles have now been overcome. "The good news," says Hightower, "is that we've been through an entire year as a Society-owned publication. The Journal is getting thicker, we are receiving more submissions, and financially, we have managed to break even."

Neumann, now managing editor, says Allen Press offers a menu of publishing services from which to pick and choose. "We can tailor the services to our budget," she says.

She and Hightower are working with the press to promote the Journal, and subscriptions are already up. "We've discovered there's a whole mechanism for marketing academic journals," Neumann says.

Cell Stress will also be included in a new aggregate of electronic journals known as BioOne, that will be launched this year by a consortium of libraries with help from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an arm of the Association of Research Libraries.

Hightower says staff at Homer Babbidge Library - particularly Carolyn Mills - have been useful sources of information about the library perspective on scholarly publishing and have assisted with the Journal's transition from a commercial to a society-owned publication.

Ownership by a not-for-profit professional society has not only enabled the Journal to maintain its academic standing, it is also more library-friendly, says Hightower. At $350 a year, he says, the subscription to Cell Stress is far more affordable than the $4,725 charged by the Journal of Cellular Physiology, a competitor published by a large commercial publishing house.

"The Society decided to become a part of the solution to the scholarly publishing crisis," he adds. "We're part of a proactive movement to challenge the big publishing houses and get some competition back into the marketplace."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

The crisis in scholarly publications will be the topic of an open forum, "Publish and Perish: The Perilous State of Academic Journals," on March 15 at 4 p.m. in the Dodd Center.