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Archive for Sunday, March 6, 2005

Subscription costs soaring for journals

March 6, 2005

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Remember Lorenzo? The little kid with the wasting genetic disease in the 1992 movie "Lorenzo's Oil"?

After the doctors had given up on him, Lorenzo's dad, played by Nick Nolte, went on a tear. He researched everything known about his son's disease and came up with a treatment.

Today, Lorenzo's dad probably would have to live near a major university with a giant subscription budget to access the latest research.

Here's one example. It costs about as much to buy a year's subscription to the Journal of Applied Polymer Science as a 2005 Toyota Corolla. The price of each approaches $13,000.

A subscription to the journal Brain Research, which Lorenzo's dad might have wanted to lay hands on given the nature of his son's problem, is more than $16,000 a year.

Scholarship hasn't always been so pricey. Scholars used to write up their discoveries and give them to scholarly societies. The societies published them for other scholars to see.

It was a gift exchange, according to David Shulenburger, Kansas University provost and executive vice chancellor.

While faculty still give their scholarship to society and commercial publishers, those entities increasingly charge extraordinary prices for their journals.

Between 1990 and 2000, medical journal prices went up 184 percent, science and technical journals 178 percent. You could call it pricing power, or you could call it greed, but in either case, the National Institutes of Health is upset.

Last month, it urged researchers who get any NIH support to release their findings to the public ASAP -- and no later than a year after publication.

Richard Fyffe, KU assistant dean of libraries for scholarly communication, wants to make it easier for researchers to do that.

He's asking faculty and staff to submit manuscripts and publications for posting on a Web site called KU ScholarWorks.

He says, "There's no real consolidated picture anywhere of the actual output of the KU research community."

Most journals are starting to loosen up a bit, Fyffe says. Some now allow scholars to post a version of the paper they submit for publication. Others let scholars post a corrected manuscript or even the final publication.

Fyffe says, "A lot of scholars and publishers realize that research done at tax-exempt institutions should be open."

Fyffe and Holly Mercer, coordinator of Digital Content Development, have helped organize a KU seminar on Tuesday that focuses on digital communication of scholarship.

I'm glad they're on the case. I've been reading research papers for years. I'd be lying if I told you that I understood all I read, but I'm often fascinated by it. Many members of the public would be, too, and now they should have easier access to such reading.

Just as an experiment, I went to ScholarWorks and picked around. I found one paper theorizing why, over countless millennia, the body size differences of men and women have grown smaller. Another focused on the development of attention in infants.

New ideas are the scholar's gift to us. Not all of them will be interesting or, except to other experts in the scholar's field, understandable. Very few will save the Lorenzos of this world.

But if taxpayers are helping to pay for discovery, they should be able to lay hands on the latest research findings -- and for less than the price of a Toyota Corolla.

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