The System of Scholarly Communication
The idea that there is a system of scholarly communication was popularized by the American Council of Learned Societies newsletter Scholarly Communication, which began by publishing a survey on the impact of personal computers on humanities research in 1985. "Scholarly communication" is a term invented to frame both print publication and digital communication within a single functional schema, tacitly asserting a continuity between them. It is this continuity that is in question, not least because the term "scholarly communication" encompasses the very research processes that are obviously being transformed by information technology, resulting in the creation of new kinds of information products and services that were not part of the scholarly publishing marketplace in the print era. These products and services include, for example, patents on methodological procedures and genetic information; software for gathering, visualizing and analyzing data; information services, such as document delivery and databases; network services; electronic mail, mailing lists, and Web pages; and electronic journals and CD-ROMs.
Today each of the institutional parts of the system of scholarly communication built over the past 50 years-research universities, publishing, and libraries-is changing, and it is unlikely that a new equilibrium will resemble the old. This system is unusual, perhaps, in that different participants perceive it from very different, perhaps contradictory, perspectives. From the perspective of the academic community, both the production and consumption of scholarly information are governed by a culture of gift exchange: production by the faculty as members of scholarly guilds, and consumption by free access to information in libraries. In gift exchange cultures, information is exchanged primarily (although not necessarily exclusively) in order to create and sustain a sense of community greater than the fragmenting force of specialization and markets. From the perspective of publishing, however, production for the academic marketplace is centered on the faculty as authors, a relationship governed by contract, and consumption is centered on academic research libraries, governed by copyright law in print publishing and by contract law in digital publishing. It is this variation in perspective, perhaps, that leads each side to hope that digital documents will replace printed journals without changing other aspects of the system of scholarly communication.
Gift and market exchange are symbiotic, not opposites. If scholarly publishing is governed by the rules of market exchange, it must manage the boundaries between two gift cultures, that within which knowledge is created and that within which knowledge is consumed. The crisis of scholarly communication has made
these boundaries very difficult to manage, as ideas from the university are turned into intellectual property, then sold back to the university to be used as a common good in the library.
Why the crisis in boundary management? The immediate crisis that has destabilized the system is the problem of sharply increasing costs for scholarly journals in science, technology, and medicine. The causes of the crisis are varied, but they begin with the commercialization of scholarly publishing, a dramatic shift from nonprofit to for-profit publishing since the 1950s, that created the hybrid gift/market system. In turn, the historic growth in the amount of scientific, technical, and medical information, driven by federal funding, has increased costs, particularly as specialization has created journals with very small markets. And the waning of a sense of the legitimacy of library collection costs within the university has allowed the rate of growth of collection budgets to fall far below the rate of price increases. Even with cost/price increases, the academic gift economy still subsidizes the market economy, for faculty give away their intellectual property to the publishers, yet remarkably, those who subsidize research do not yet make a property claim on the research they support. Subsidies include, for example, the federal funding of research, institutional subsidies, and the voluntary labor of faculty in providing editorial services to publishers.
This system evolved at the turn of the twentieth century as a subsidy for nonprofit university presses and disciplinary society publishers in order to circulate scholarly information and build a national intellectual infrastructure. Since 1950, however, federal research funding and commercial publishing have reshaped the system, creating the hybrid market-gift exchange system with many unrecognized cross subsidies.
Higher education is both the producer and consumer of scholarly publications. As creators of scholarship, faculty are motivated by nonmarket incentives, primarily promotion and tenure; yet at the same time, faculty see themselves as independent entrepreneurs, managing a professional career through self-governed disciplinary guilds that cross all educational institutions. This guildlike structure is a deliberate anachronism, perhaps, but one that sustains a sense of professional identity through moral as well as material rewards.
Scholarly publications are consumed within a gift culture institution called the library, a subsidized public good within which knowledge appears to the reader as a free good. Publishers would add that this gift culture is, in turn, subsidized by the owners of intellectual property through the fair use and first sale doctrines, which generally allow copyrighted information to be consumed for educational purposes.
The ambiguity at the boundary of gift and market extends to institutions of higher education as well, which are simultaneously corporation and community. But the dominant factor that has shaped the last 50 years of higher education is that universities have become a kind of public interest corporation that serves national policy goals. Just as the Morrill Act created land grant colleges to promote
research and education for the development of the agricultural economy, modern research universities have been shaped by federal research funding since World War II as "milieus of innovation," functioning as tacit national laboratories for a polity uncomfortable with the idea of a formal industrial policy.
This system of scholarly communication is in crisis. Consider, for example, the possible consequences for this system if some of the ideas and questions being debated nationally were to come to pass:
• What is the future of university research? Does the research university still play a central role as a national milieu for innovation, or has the corporation become the focus of innovative research and national information policy?
• What is the future scope of higher education? Historically, colleges and universities have had a tacit monopoly of the education market based on accreditation and geographical proximity, but instructional technology and distance education have created new markets for education. With the Western Governors' University proposal, a national market for education would be created based on selling teaching services that will be evaluated by examination rather than the accreditation of traditional institutional settings for education. Moreover, corporate training and for-profit education is on the verge of competing directly with some sectors of education.
• What is the future of the library as a public good? In the polity, the idea of a national digital library has been modeled upon the universal access policies governing telephone and electric utilities. Here the public good is fulfilled by the provision of "access," but it will be the consumer's responsibility to pay for information used. The cultural legitimation crisis of public institutions within the polity extends to the funding of academic research libraries within the university as well.
• What is the future of the academic disciplines in a world of increasing specialization that makes it difficult for traditional disciplines to find common terms of discourse and at a time in which disciplinary metamorphosis is now creating new fields like molecular biology, neuroscience, cultural studies, and environmental science?
• What is the future of fair use? Rights that exist in print are not being automatically extended to the use of digital works. Federal policy discussions about intellectual property in the digital environment have not included fair use, giving priority to the creation of a robust market in digital publication and the creation of incentives for the publication of educational works.
These are questions, not predictions, but they are questions that are being discussed in the polity, so they are not mere speculation. They are intended only to point out that the system of scholarly communication is a historical creation, a response to certain conditions that may no longer exist.
Three new factors define the conditions within which a system of scholarly
communication may evolve. First, the emergence of a global economy in which intellectual property is an important source of wealth creates a context in which the value of scholarly research may be a matter of national interest extending far beyond the traditional concerns of the academy. Second, the end of the cold war as a stimulus for national information policy that took the form of federal patronage of university research may fundamentally change the shape and content of federal funding for research. And third, information technology has created global communication, enabling new links between researchers around the world, creating the possibility that the intellectual disciplines of the future are likely to develop paradigms and concerns that transcend national boundaries.