RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

  SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS  -  Journals feel the change

The arrival of the internet has thrown into disarray all the operating principles behind scientific publishing that have traditionally governed the quality and integrity of knowledge as well as access to it. For almost five years now, a debate has been raging, involving not only the publishers but all those with a stake in scientific communication and who are feeling the impact of the digital revolution.

Journals feel the change
The first level of scientific communication is the dissemination of knowledge between peers. This is the cornerstone without which scientific progress is simply not possible. With their origins in the 18th century, the particular customs and practices applied to the validation of knowledge are aimed above all at ensuring a “guarantee of integrity and quality” that takes the form of a quite unique system of democratic co-optation. Known as peer review, this system whereby independent peers evaluate and approve research results for publication in specialist journals is the key to the very functioning of science.

A publishing tradition
At first, it was the scientific community itself in the form of universities and learned societies that published specialist journals. This publishing activity by what are known as Learned Publishers still plays a significant role today. It is autonomous and works on a not-for-profit basis. Although this does not prevent it from sometimes making considerable profits, these are reinvested in publishing activities – such as developing on-line access – or used to finance the other needs of the academic institutions in question.

At the same time, since the beginning of the last century, professional publishers have also developed a traditional profit-making activity. Some of these have grown into sizeable businesses, such as the Dutch group Reed Elsevier, for example. Today, this giant of the scientific publishing world alone accounts for 28% of the global market in its field. Over recent decades a number of other powerful publishing houses have joined the business – Springer (Germany), Wolters Kluwer (the Netherlands), Thomson Scientific (USA), Blackwell Publishing (UK) and Taylor & Francis (UK), etc. – and together they now control two-thirds of the global dissemination of knowledge, the balance made up of the not-for-profit publishers (see graph).

Science is based on a twofold principle of universality and freedom of initiative, the profit and non-profit strands enjoying a peaceful coexistence. The latter, which covers the publishing activities of academic and scientific institutions, is mainly represented and supported by The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), founded in the United Kingdom. "Our members produce a total of between 7 000 and 8 000 journals,” notes Nick Evans, the association’s business manager. “Our relations with private publishers are certainly competitive, but we share the same mission of developing, selecting and making known developments in knowledge by making them accessible to as many scientists as possible. We also work closely with some of these private publishers which have the status of associate members of the ALPSP, in particular Blackwell Publishing that actually publishes works on behalf of various Learned Publishers."

The saturation crisis and open access
This tried-and-tested organisation is now coming under pressure from two quite different phenomena.

On the one hand, the increase in publishing activity and in its cost, due to the exponential increase in knowledge, is leading to a saturation of the purchasing power of the public science libraries of universities and leading research centres.

On the other hand, the digital revolution and the internet are bringing competition between printed and virtual media, while on-line access is radically changing the traditional management of scientific knowledge. Furthermore, for just under a decade now, very active groups of researchers have been campaigning not only for open access but also for free access. This combination of economic strangulation and digital revolution ultimately has implications for the public authorities and indeed for society as a whole. Because, is it not society that provides the ‘financial fuel’ necessary for science? And is it not therefore entitled to participate in the debate on this new world of access to knowledge?  

Graphique : Global Market Shares of STM Publishers, 2003