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sparc ignites scholarly debate

Alison Buckholtz outlines SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), an initiative to make scientific journals more accessible.

In the world of scientific publishing, market forces – not fellowships – drive research. The result has been a sustained, decades-long jump in the cost of scholarly journals – and subsequent journal cancellation campaigns by libraries. In many cases, libraries have successfully demonstrated to their home institutions that the rising price of journals is not just a problem for libraries, but for the future of science. This understanding and sense of shared responsibility has paved the way for some promising new solutions to what's become known as the 'scholarly communication crisis'.

During the past several years, initiatives which bring together librarians, researchers, university administrators and independent publishers have re-invigorated the scholarly publishing marketplace. These initiatives take advantage of electronic technology and show great potential for restoring science to scientists. Various projects push for open access to research, introduce alternative, cheaper but prestigious journals, incubate new electronic models of communication, and in general expand competition in the publishing marketplace.

SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) is one such initiative, and since its creation four years ago, SPARC has helped change the landscape of scholarly publishing.

Since the university researchers for whom journals are written do not pay the annual subscription invoices, many fail to understand the extent of the problem created by the escalating cost of commercially published journals. Academics also may not realise that when libraries cut back on subscriptions because of high journal prices, the journals that remain in circulation make up for the falling subscriptions with higher rates. Furthermore, when libraries are forced to cancel journals published by scholarly societies, the subscription fees these societies usually reinvest in science also disappear, weakening the society and by extension the scientific process.

Members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in North America subscribe to seven per cent fewer journals today than they did in 1986 – but they're spending 152 per cent more to subscribe. The problem is mirrored worldwide. Figure 1 (below) shows serial costs and jumps in North America, the UK and Australia.

A clear illustration of the problem facing scientific publishers

Science for scientists has become an endangered concept. Although journals are produced through the labour of researchers who contribute their time and skill for the benefit of their professional community, the net effect is a contribution to commercial publishers' high profits.

Publishers explain journal-price inflation by pointing to increases in research funding which lead to huge jumps in the number of articles submitted and the resulting page-count increase; the paltry increase in some libraries' annual budgets; and publishers' transition to electronic communication, among other reasons. But most publishers do not pay the editors or referees of a journal. Nor do they pay for any overhead expenses, such as lab fees. And they certainly do not pay for the research behind the articles or the government grant that supports the research. Universities and government agencies pay these expenses – and then they pay handsomely again to buy back the research from publishers.

Librarians were among the first to recognise the implications. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, members of the research and academic library community made many unsuccessful efforts to convince commercial publishers of the need for a new model for journal publishing. SPARC was conceived when ARL directors concluded that lack of competition in the marketplace for scientific journals could eventually translate into the collapse of scientific communications, and that unified action might avoid this outcome.

In developing SPARC, which launched in July 1998, the ARL tapped into theories articulated in 1994 by the Association of American Universities (AAU). The AAU called for academe to introduce more competition and cost-based pricing into the marketplace for [scientific communications] by encouraging a mix of commercial and not-for-profit organisations to engage in electronic publication of the results of scientific research.'

Data has shown the popularity and promise of the Web-based technology for scholarly communication; e-journals in the sciences have opened up a new chapter in the epic of scholarly communications pricing. Electronic-only journals in many cases cost a fraction of the price of print journals, and they allow readers great flexibility and ease in finding articles. They also usually shorten the time between submission of an article and its publication. Readers also appreciate the convenience of journals they can access from their home computers or university system.

Today SPARC points to three operating priorities:

  • Incubation of alternatives to current high-priced journals and digital aggregations. This is implemented by publisher partnership programmes and advisory services that promote competition for authors and buyers, demonstrate alternatives to the traditional journal business model, and stimulate expansion of the non-profit sector's share of overall scholarly publishing activity;
  • Public advocacy of fundamental changes in the system and the culture of scholarly communication. This encompasses outreach targeted at various stakeholder groups (e.g. librarians, faculty, and editorial boards), as well as public relations activities that publicise key issues and initiatives. The advocacy thrust enhances the impact of SPARC's publishing partnerships, providing broad awareness of the possibilities for change and emboldening scholars to act; and
  • Education campaigns aimed at enhancing awareness of scholarly communication issues and supporting expanded institutional and scholarly community roles in and control over the scholarly communication process.

Today membership in SPARC numbers approximately 200 institutions (research libraries, universities, academic associations and others) in North America, Asia, and Australia; it is affiliated with major library organisations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and North America. SPARC is also advising Japanese libraries on advocacy campaigns directed toward Japanese researchers and academic and government institutions. SPARC Europe is being developed throughout 2002. SPARC Europe currently has 27 members and four organisational sponsors in the UK and Europe.

SPARC's partnerships with independent publishers provide the link between education and action. These partnerships aid editors, societies and universities by allowing their new journal to build a subscription base among SPARC members (which commit to subscribe to SPARC partner journals that fit their needs). The startup risk for the new journal is thus reduced.

SPARC member subscriptions help incubate these alternative journals during their first years, also aiding these new ventures by offering advisory services via the SPARC consulting group. The American Chemical Society (ACS), the largest scientific society in the world, was the first organisation to partner with SPARC. Organic Letters, the SPARC-endorsed journal (available in print and electronically) that emerged from that partnership, debuted in May–June 1999. The journal distributes the results of peerreviewed research in organic chemistry faster and at much less cost than competing journals. For example, an annual subscription to Organic Letters costs about $2,739 compared with $9,624 for a subscription to Tetrahedron Letters, the competing publication. The presence of Organic Letters has also acted as a price constraint on Tetrahedron Letters.

But price isn't the only factor demonstrating the success of SPARC journals like Organic Letters. In this case, it has already demonstrated prestige by surpassing Tetrahedron Letters in impact factor (Figure 2, below).

The Royal Society of Chemistry, the ACS's counterpart in the UK, publishes the SPARC-endorsed electronic journal PhysChemComm, which disseminates research on all aspects of chemical physics and physical chemistry. The journal boasts a turnaround time of 33 days from the time an article is received to when it's published. PhysChemComm offers other benefits in addition to speed of publication. For example, the journal can use three-dimensional full-colour interactive figures to present complicated molecular data, such as crystal-structure diagrams. Doing so allows readers to manipulate the data themselves. PhysChemComm is available for $100 a year compared to its commercial competitor, Chemical Physics Letters, which cost $10,264 last year.

University of Arizona biologist Mike Rosenzweig created Evolutionary Ecology Research, another successful SPARC journal partner. Before collaborating with SPARC, Rosenzweig founded and edited Evolutionary Ecology, published by a commercial firm, which he edited for most of the 1990s. During that time, the journal was sold twice, landing at the feet of a large publishing conglomerate that raised the journal's annual price from $95 to nearly $800.

Rosenzweig was never consulted about the changes in ownership, marketing decisions, or price increases; nor was he paid for his efforts as editor. He watched subscription numbers drop and individual subscriptions dry up completely. Fed up with what he saw as 'intellectual slavery', Rosenzweig quit, and his entire editorial board followed suit. They regrouped to create Evolutionary Ecology Research, which Rosenzweig publishes independently in both print and electronic formats. Annual institutional Internet subscriptions are $340, and the print edition plus electronic access costs $396. As with many SPARC partner journals, Evolutionary Ecology Research is fully indexed; it is indexed in Biological Abstracts, CAB Abstracts, Current Contents, Ecology Abstracts, Environment Abstracts and Zoological Record.

Evolutionary Ecology Research has acquired prominence in the field since its launch, primarily because of its ability to attract the most prestigious authors. Prestige is the most complex ingredient of all in the success of SPARC's publishing partnerships. An electronic journal gains prestige when prominent members of the field edit it, when up-and-coming faculty members contribute to it, and when members of a discipline accept it. Thanks to the success of many young alternative journals, a number of new electronic initiatives in scientific publishing get a much better reception from scholars than they would have just a few years ago.

BioOne is one such example. BioOne is a webbased aggregation of research in the biological, ecological and environmental sciences, and it is the result of a groundbreaking library-society partnership. BioOne was created with libraries as the 'venture capitalists' investing in BioOne to help the future of scholarly publishing and strengthen scientific societies in the process. BioOne engages in an innovative revenue sharing formula whereby 50 per cent of every subscription dollar is returned to the participating society publisher annually, so that the society may continue to innovate and grow.

BioOne was developed by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), SPARC, the University of Kansas, the Big 12 Plus Libraries Consortium, and Allen Press. Since launch, BioOne has licensed content from over 46 highly cited, peer-reviewed science journals. BioOne offers journals including American Midland Naturalist (University of Notre Dame), Annals of the ESA (Entomological Society of America), Ambio (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), BioScience (American Institute of Biological Sciences), American Zoologist (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology), Photochemistry and Photobiology (American Society for Photobiology), and Wetlands, among many others.

BioOne increases functionality of participating journals and enhances services to scientific society members, especially with its reference linking, broad distribution and library-friendly pricing. Journal price can be calculated a number of ways: price per article, price per page, price per character. SPARC partner journals are steadily building a stable of authors and papers that will make them competitive no matter how the statistics are analysed. SPARC partner journals which compete directly with high-priced titles are significantly less expensive for libraries.

Library support of these alternative titles gives them the time to build scale, gain greater credibility and publish the high-quality research the audience demands. As they do so, libraries are already seeing journal price increases moderating.

SPARC has been an effective advocate on behalf of the library-researcher relationship, encouraging cultural changes in scholarly publishing that benefit the academic community. The Create Change initiative (launched by SPARC, ARL and ACRL) and the Declaring Independence initiative (launched by SPARC with support from the Triangle Research Libraries Network) give librarians the tools they need to back up their own efforts to educate. Gaining Independence, phase two of the 'Independence' initiative and the newest program, is a step-by-step guide to creating a business plan for the launch of an electronic journal or institutional repository. All of these resources are offered to the community free of charge. SPARC and SPARC Europe feel that open access is an especially important issue for its members. Both SPARC and SPARC Europe participated in the creation of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) and have signed the founding statement of intent.

Common technology standards are crucial to the success of open access. Early on, SPARC recognised the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) as a key technology strategy offering a broad range of solutions for libraries. The Open Archives Initiative develops and promotes interoperability standards that aim to facilitate the efficient dissemination of content. It has its roots in an effort to enhance access to e-print archives as a means of increasing scholarly communication. The fundamental technological framework and standards that are developing to support this work are independent of both the type of content offered and the economic mechanisms surrounding that content. This standard promises much broader relevance in opening up access to a range of digital materials.

Activity in the future will emphasise providing expanded practical assistance to innovative publishing initiatives that embody SPARC values, especially the facilitation of library-scholar partnerships in support of scholarly communication. Under this umbrella, SPARC seeks to build successful publishing plans, reduce barriers to market entry, make effective use of available resources, and apply lessons learned to other projects. Activity will cluster around initiatives to:

  • Encourage development of institution-based repositories for the work of scholars. SPARC will work with universities and libraries to organise, support, and publicise new institutional roles in information dissemination (such as institutional and disciplinary servers) and the intellectual property policies necessary for their implementation;
  • Support scholar-led journal publishing initiatives. When scholars are ready to take action and assert control over scholarly communication, they must have concrete options. Regardless of the long-term future of journals, it is through this filter that most scholars today engage with the issues. Hence, SPARC remains focused on scholar-led initiatives in which editorial boards are 'declaring independence,' addressing important emerging fields, developing innovative value-added ventures, or experimenting with new economic models; and
  • Develop new collaborative digital publishing enterprises and models. BioOne has been a notable success and offers a base of experience applicable to other initiatives. Along with other SPARC engagements, it suggests the power of uniting various players in the information chain (e.g., societies, libraries, consortia, academic computing centres, university presses, etc.) in pursuit of shared objectives. In 2002 SPARC will be closely involved in cultivating projects that harness this power to offer scholars better ways of disseminating their research.

SPARC takes an old idea – the primacy of the academic in the publishing process – and gives it a new twist. Through its programs and initiatives, SPARC hopes to help keep scholarly publishing vibrant, viable, and competitive in the years ahead.


SPARC has worked closely with its partners and member libraries worldwide to create relevant, effective solutions that will reverberate throughout the scholarly communication marketplace. We would like to continue this close collaboration. We encourage feedback, comments, and involvement among faculty and administrators in SPARC's advocacy initiatives. SPARC can be reached at

SPARC Europe
Create Change
Declaring Independence
Gaining Independence

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