In June the journal shelves at the Health Sciences Library of the University of Pittsburgh began showing holes. Where current issues of Leukemia Research were once stacked, now stands a small cardboard sign: "Issues for 2003 are available only in electronic form." The cardboard tents have replaced print copies of hundreds of journals, from Fertility and Sterility to Cancer Detection and Prevention to the Journal of Pediatric Surgery. And at the library's computer terminals, where employees and students of the university can tap into the fast-growing digital collections, other signs advise that "You need an HSL Online password to use these computers." Restrictions in the contracts the university has signed with publishers prohibit librarians from issuing passwords to the public.
A patient newly diagnosed with leukemia, a parent concerned about a risky operation her child is facing, a precocious high school student--whatever their motivation, ordinary citizens have for decades enjoyed free access to the latest scientific and medical literature, so long as they could make their way to a state-funded university library. That is rapidly changing as public research libraries, squeezed between state budget cuts and a decade of rampant inflation in journal prices, drop printed journals in droves. The online versions that remain are often beyond the reach of "unaffiliated" visitors.
"We are in the midst of a massive transformation to the digital library," says Patricia Mickelson, director of the University of Pittsburgh's medical library. Scientists and doctors find the electronic resources much more convenient, she says, "and we just can't afford both the electronic and print versions."
Part of the problem, adds Deborah Lordi Silverman, the library's journal manager, is that the thousands of journals are put out by just a handful of publishers, who bundle their titles into " big deals" covered by a single contract. "The kicker with these deals is that in exchange for a guaranteed price, they say you can't cancel anything," Silverman complains.
Research libraries are likely to continue carrying print copies of general-interest journals, such as Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. And a few powerful institutions--among them the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at San Francisco--have insisted on "walk-up" clauses in their contracts that allow any patron full access to their online journals at workstations within the library. But they are the exception; as a rule, Silverman says, publishers insist that their online journals remain "protected" from the general public.
Pressured by a boycott among some high-profile scientists in 2001, certain journals began offering free public access to back issues a year or more after publication. But most charge high per-view fees for recent articles.
The restrictive tactics have enabled publishers to squeeze more dollars from their subscribers. But the restrictions may turn out to be a strategic error, as the industry faces a backlash on several fronts. In June, Minnesota Representative Martin Sabo introduced a bill, the Public Access to Science Act, that would forbid publishers from claiming copyright on "scientific work substantially funded by the federal government"--a large fraction of basic and medical research. "It defies logic to collectively pay for our medical research only to privatize its profitability and availability," Sabo argues.
Also in June, a nonprofit group called the Public Library of Science announced that it plans to launch in October the first of two elite life science journals that will be free online to all readers. Funded by $9 million in start-up money from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and backed by prominent scientists such as Harold E. Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, the group plans to recoup its expenses by charging the scientists who submit their papers for publication. Print subscriptions will also carry a modest fee.
And M.I.T., the University of California system and about 140 other universities have set up so-called open-access archives in which researchers can deposit their papers before they are published, much as ArXiv.org has done for physics. According to Stevan R. Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Quebec and a longtime advocate of such archives, the number of papers in these repositories grew from about 20,000 two years ago to 1.3 million at the beginning of 2003. They still capture a small fraction of the two million or so peer-reviewed articles published each year by journals. But the long-term threat to the highly profitable business of journal publishing is unmistakable.