Copyright, Libraries, and the Financial Viability of Scholarly Society Journals

Catherine E. Rudder

Originally published in Copyright, Public Policy, and the Scholarly Community. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Catherine E. Rudder. The author has granted permission to reproduce and distribute copies of this work for nonprofit educational or library purposes, provided that copies are distributed at or below cost, and that the author, source, and copyright notice are included on each copy. This permission is in addition to rights of reproduction granted under Sections 107, 108, and other provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act.


It seems that as we all face the electronic future, the scholarly societies, especially social science and humanities groups, have been conspicuously absent in the copyright debate as it applies to the electronic environment, even though such groups have a substantial stake in the outcome. When individual societies do take on the issue, they do so in meetings of the National Humanities Alliance or the American Council of Learned Societies. What little such societies do know is through ARL's leadership in the National Humanities Alliance where Duane Webster has helped to create a committee on copyright and libraries. He has spoken to the Alliance on several occasions and continues to help members understand the issues. There are reasons that scholarly societies have been so slow and relatively silent. First, most societies have extremely limited resources. Most scholarly associations are small or medium-sized groups with limited, overtaxed staffs. Some have no full-time paid staff members at all. Few have ready access to legal counsel. Most do not have a technical computer person on staff. The scholarly organizations that do not reside on a university campus were on the whole slow to get on the Internet because until recently access for an entire of fice was costly and because the technical expertise was lacking.

The second reason that scholarly societies have not been vocal in the copyright in an electronic age conversation is that the challenges of the electronic future are paralyzing. Consider the dilemma in which these societies find themselves. They are charitable educational institutions that are committed to the free interchange of ideas and the production and use of scholarship. At the same time, to survive as organizations, these groups must generate an adequate stream of revenue. Typically, this revenue derives from individual and institutional dues. Individuals are willing to pay dues in part in order to receive the societies' journals. In addition, libraries pay even higher fees so that their patrons can have access to those journals. In the pre-electronic past, the fact that the library had a journal did not impede individuals on campus from subscribing to the same journal, probably because of the convenience, for example, of not having to trudge over to the library to search for a particular issue.

Imagine how the calculus changes if a faculty member can sit at her computer terminal at home and access the journal online through the campus library. Under this scenario a political scientist, for example, no longer needs her own copy of the American Political Science Review. Instead she can call it up and, even better, search it any time that she wants. As a result, because she does not need her own copy of the Review, she then has less reason to join the organization that publishes the journal. If many political scientists make that decision, the American Political Science Association's survival may be threatened.

This is a collective action problem: Even if a scholar sees the value of the work of his society, he may be induced to ask, "Why should I join? My $75 does not make much difference in the aggregate, and I do not purchase anything special for my $75 that would not happen anyway." Without the journal, in other words, scholars may be disinclined to join. Even before online access became such a looming possibility, societies found themselves under considerable financial pressure as libraries themselves suffering stringent budget limits, cut back their subscriptions to societies' journals. With online access, however, the whole financial structure of societies implodes. Individuals will not need to join professional associations to get journals because their libraries will have them online and no physical barrier stands in the way of immediate access.

With both on-campus access and especially interlibrary loan, many fewer cc pies of a journal are needed. Theoretically, at some point only one copy of any journal will be needed, as everyone could access that copy electronically. The question is: Who pays for the copy? Can the price be sufficient to sustain the scholarly society?

Note the conflict that this whole issue, then, creates for associations. These groups' core values of facilitating scholarship and the free interchange of ideas collides with the very basis on which they have traditionally survived, that is, offering journals in exchange for membership dues. The societies' responses to the perilous future and to current financial challenges have been inadequate.

Most ominously, some groups have been making deals with forprofit publishers. Such publishers print scholarly journals, increasing the likelihood that the intellectual property will be dominated by commerce, not scholarship. Such publishers do not necessarily share the values of the societies or, for that matter, of research libraries. Prices of journals are set to insure a healthy profit and increase the already heavy burden on libraries.

Happily, many societies haare not joined up with for-profit publishers but are responding to financial challenges and the electronic future in a variety of promising ways.

They are developing online publications that are entirely new journals and thus not supplanting already existing print journals. Political science, for example, has a first-rate book review journal developed by Herb Jacob of Northwestern University in the law/courts field. It is freely available to all.

Societies are also revising their financial structures to a degree. The American Political Science Association, for instance, is edging toward more commercial activities in order to support scholarly activities, a practice commonly referred to as "cross-subsidization." By renting mailing labels, income can be generated for the work of the Committee on Professional Ethics, which is neither designed nor able to generate revenue to finance its activities. By aggressively selling exhibit booths at our annual meeting or space advertising in our journals, reliance on dues income can be relaxed and programs for minorities and graduate students, for example, can be sustained even as dues income declines. Associations must, it seems to me, reduce their heavy reliance on dues income driven by journal subscriptions. At the same time, they must think of new ways of providing journals in an online environment and of paying for them.

Societies need the help of the research library community in this task. For instance, one future option is differential charging among institutions. Right now we charge a small, liberal arts college like Drury for a subscription to the American Political Science Review at the same rate we charge Harvard University. Drury may use its subscription less than Harvard since Harvard's political science faculty is substantially larger and trains graduate students. How should we take such differences into account? This question becomes particularly critical as charges are developed for online access.

It would be helpful if research libraries would work in concert with scholarly societies to develop pricing schemes, to work out copyright issues, and to provide data on the impact of electronic provision in order to enhance associations' planning. Further, libraries would be doing a service to the entire scholarly enterprise to which they are committed--just as scholarly societies are--if libraries would work with such societies to stem indiscriminate loss of revenues by associations while at the same time increasing access to scholarly materials.

Robert Oakley, in his April 1994 address at the National Net meeting, points in the right direction. Associations and libraries together must think of ways to charge for materials that avoid transaction-based fees at the individual level. Such fees make good sense for profit-making businesses, but not for groups who value accessibility of knowledge and who are committed to the concept of a research library.

How can a charging regime be devised that controls costs to libraries and that does not penalize the scholarly societies producing the journals? Societies have to sit down with libraries and the two communities must work together. Even though they have different financial and budgetary imperatives, they share the same values and serve the same clientele. In absence of cooperation, commercial interests are likely to dominate. It is increasingly clear that national policy makers are inclined to let the market reign. Such a resolution to intellectual property issues is not in the interest of the scholarly enterprise. The alternative is to create cooperative agreements between societies and libraries that will fulfill the needs of scholarly publishers, libraries, and users alike.

Catherine E. Rudder is Executive Director of the American Political Science Association