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Cost-cutting librarians and computer-literate professors

are bypassing academic journals—bad newsforReed Elsevier.

The Internet's
first victim?
By John R. Hayes
IT'S H.\iw TO lALAGlNK a Sweeter business than publishing academic journals. The editorial content is contributed free of charge by scholars desperate to publish to get tenure. School
libraries are automatic customers—
professors insist on it. A one-year
subscription to Neuroscience, published .24 times a year, costs $3,775.
The 34-times-a-year Gene costs
$5,500. And Brain Research, at 114
issues a year, costs $14,000.
The titles mentioned above are just
3 ofthe 1,100 academic journals published by Reed Elsevier, the largest
such publisher in the world. Based in
London, Reed Elsevier is a joint venture between Britain's Reed International Pic. and Holland's Elsevier
N.V. Neither parent company has
significant assets other than their
holdings in Reed Elsevier.
With total revenues estimated at
$5.5 billion this year. Reed Elsevier
also publishes professional directories, medical publications and trade
magazines. It bought the Lexis-Nexis
database business from the Mead
Corp. for $1.5 billion in 1994, but
academic journals are far and away its
most profitable enterprise. On revenues last year of $600 million. Reed
Elsevier's academic publishing operation probably earned $225 million
before taxes, a pretax margin of nearly
40%. Last year the rest of Reed Elsevier earned 20% pretax on revenues of
$4.5 billion.
Is the party over.' It may be nearing
its end. The Internet is closing in.
Two years ago Louisiana State Universit)''s librar)' canceled subscriptions to 1,569 scholarly journals that
cost $446,000, of which $88,427
went to Reed Elsevier. In return,
200

Forbes • Decembe

s,l

LSU's libraiy guaranteed copies of in- order anything not available on camdi\'idual articles that any professor or pus directly from the UnCover Co., a
graciuate student \\ anted w ithin two Dcnxer-based article retrieval compadays. Over the next year teachers and ti\' that puts tables of contents on the
students requested 2,092 articles Internet. UnCo\'er faxes the articles
from 936 publications not in the l.si' to professors and students within 24
libran. The library was able to pro- hours. Average cost at LSU: $13 per
cure these articles for just S25,000 in article. "We're a little bit ahead of
copyright and deli\ en' fees.
where the rest of the countiy is
This year l.su clitninatcd the libra- going," sa\'s I.SU libraiy's Assistant
r\''s intermedian- role. Now some Dean Chuck Hamaker.
10,000 professors and grad students
Reed Elsevicr doubts the trend will
can log on to the Internet to browse turn into a rout. The professors, it
the tables of contents of 17,000 aca- insists, need its products. "Tenure
demic journals. With a click they can depends on a peer group saying that a

ABOVE:

Reed Elsevier's
Amsterdam cochairman, Herman
Bruggink
"The market we
serve is perfectly
happy with
the product
we deliver."

LEFT:

Reed Elsevier's
London cochairman,
Ian Irvine
"Academics are
what they are.
They are
academics, not
publishers."

Forbes • December 18, 1995

for ink-on-paper journals.
Publishers who respond slowly may
find their lock on the peer review
process isn't watertight. Reviewers,
unpaid like writers, arc free to work
for competitors. As electronic publishing catches on among scholars,
new peer review committees are
forming to review manuscripts published on the Internet.
According to the 1995 Direetory of
Eleetronie fournals, the number of
electronic journals and newsletters
has grown 66% in the past year, to
nearly 700 titles. That includes 142
peer reviewed electronic journals,
among them Thefournal ofArtifieial
Intellijjenee Researeh and Psyeoloquy.
Reed Elsevier itself just completed
a four-year experiment distributing
journals electronically to 17 universities. A handful of universities and
corporations now pay to receive and
distribute articles electronically.
Reed Elsevier sells electronic information for 110% of the price of a print
subscription. For 140%, subscribers
can get both paper and electronic
versions. This kind of mariceting is
unlikely to go down well with budgetsqueezed librarians.
There's flexibility in the Internet
that's lacking in paper-and-ink journals. Four years ago Paul Cinsparg, a
40-year-old high energy' particle
theorist at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory', wrote a program allowing the 200 or so researchers in his
field to post their manuscripts. His
[research] product is as good or better archiving and distribution software
than anyone else's," says Reed Else- has expanded to include 30 other
vier Cochairman Ian Irvine. "The disciplines and subdisciplines in physplace that happens is in the sciendfic ics, mathematics, computational linguistics and other fields where speed
journal community'."
Maybe, but last year Stevan Har- of dissemination matters.
Today 35,000 to 40,000 users pronad, a psychology professor at the
Universit}' of Southampton in En- cess up to 70,000 electronic transacgland and founding editor of the jour- tions on his ser\'er eveiy day. In Janunal Psyeoloquy, posted what he tcrtns aiy Cinsparg expects his colleagues to
"a subversive proposal" on the Inter- announce plans for a formal electronnet. The proposal would undermine ic peer review process. That, he becommercial publisbers by having aca- lieves, will eliminate the key advandemics post their working manu- tage of the print journals in his field.
If he's right, the journal most at risk
scripts and, later, their finished, peer
reviewed articles on the Internet. is Nuelear Physies B, a $10,775-a-year
That, Harnad believes, would force Reed Elsevier publicadon. "We're
publishers to embrace the faster, less asking our publishers, 'Why do we
expensive world of electronic publish- need you?' " says Cinsparg. "I'm ining. Turnaround time on an electron- terested in seeing the whole system
ically published manuscript is about [of commercial academic publishing]
IH
three months, versus up to two years collapse."
201

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