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John MacColl talks to Peter Nathan, acting president and distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Iowa.

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Interface: Peter Nathan

John MacColl talks to Peter Nathan, acting president and distinguished professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa.

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Peter Nathan, Acting President and Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa, does not mince his words. “It is rare” opines Nathan, “for the price of journals to bear any relation to the cost of producing them.”

Peter Nathan The University of Iowa is one of the mid-Western ‘Big Ten’ universities and a member of the sixty major research universities in the US which comprise the Association of American Universities (AAU). Three years ago, the AAU and the American Research Libraries group (ARL) jointly created a Task Force on Intellectual Property. The aim of the TFIP, which Nathan chaired, was to reduce the cost of scholarly resources to American universities. Publishers have pushed up the prices of their publications beyond the point at which the research universities - a mix of publicly and privately run institutions - can afford to go on subscribing. If this material is the lifeblood of academic research, the cost of keeping it pumping is now unacceptable.

“To some extent, the faculty are to blame” stated Nathan at a conference at Stirling University in February of this year. Faculty, the academic staff in US universities, are uneducated in the subject of copyright. They fail to realise how important to the survival of their institutions is their own research output. “Faculty in the US consider themselves entrepreneurs” said Nathan. “Their loyalty is to their invisible college - other researchers around the world working in their own research area - not to their home university.”

University Provosts however, among whom Nathan was numbered until recently, have to think hard about costs. In a scenario which is assuming greater relevance for the UK, the Provosts of the Big Ten came to realise that their faculty were simply giving away the universities’ most valuable asset - its intellectual property - to commercial publishers who then sold it back to libraries for a vast profit. “Universities were quick to recognise the commercial value of patents” states Nathan, “But they have never considered copyright in the same light. It is time to begin clawing back our own property.”

After the Stirling conference, Nathan extended his stay in Scotland by a couple of days. I met him on a crisp, sunny afternoon in Edinburgh, where the University Library kindly allowed us to discuss the US scholarly publishing crisis in a bright conference room overlooking the Meadows. Still somewhat jet-lagged, Nathan was nevertheless determined to state the nature of the problem, and its urgency. Certain commercial publishers are guilty of ‘confiscatory’ policies - publishing more journal titles in some disciplines than are required, in order to maximise profits. Faculty continue to churn out articles for these journals because of the vicious cycle which sustains the entire system. The higher the number of publications produced by an academic, the greater his or her chances of promotion and tenure, not to mention the prospects of government funding for the next research project.

The TFIP sought ways of freeing its members from the stranglehold of the most notorious commercial publishers. In its recent report to the AAU, it examined innovative new relationships between faculty, libraries and University presses, and proposed establishing a ‘US eLib’, funded on a consortium basis by the 60 AAU member institutions, to be called ‘Electronic Scholarly Publishing’ (ESP). However, the AAU decided not to adopt the consortium solution, preferring a ‘university by university’ approach. “Their argument” explains Nathan, “is that the AAU universities have become much more proactive in exploring opportunities in the electronic domain.”

While this may be true, it must leave the academic library community in the US with a more difficult task in providing competition to mainstream publishers through the creation of new journal titles and pre-print archives. Universities are likely to consider joint-funded projects with other universities, with university presses and learned societies. Nathan hopes to see universities launching publications which will compete directly with those of the commercial publishers, or, indeed, new methods of scholarly publishing altogether. An example of the latter is open peer commentary in place of traditional peer review, which publishers have always claimed cannot be done cheaply. According to Nathan, “Peer review is not always necessary.” Open peer commentary, as exemplified in the Los Alamos high-energy physics archive, offers a cost-free alternative. Peers are invited to add critical commentary to ‘published’ articles. This commentary is made available simultaneously, providing for a culture of dynamic publishing of research results.

Back in 1994, the TFIP produced a number of recommendations. Campus committees were formed to educate faculty about copyright. University copyright officers were appointed and institutional policies on intellectual property produced. The numerous university presses which exist in the US were involved, in an attempt to retain copyright control within the university of origin. These have resulted in consortia arrangements between different presses which share responsibility for publishing important journals. They have also led to a higher level of co-operation between libraries and presses.

But more requires to be done. While no formal consortium basis currently exists, Nathan is still hopeful that projects will emerge which will alter the face of scholarly publishing in the US. Might there be scope for joint work between US and UK institutions? Nathan is positive. “We have a lot to learn from each other.” But he remains unconvinced of the value of cooperating with commercial publishers. “Do we need them? We have university presses, libraries and learned societies - all with a non-commercial, scholarly ethos. By forging new innovative relationships, we can take control of scholarly publishing by ourselves.”