Research is a truly global and collective endeavor. It is at once a competitive and cooperative enterprise where free and unhindered flow of knowledge is essential for making any advance.
Researchers build on what is already known. Cooperative or competitive, lone ranger, or working as a team, researchers depend to a great extent on the contributions to knowledge made by others across space and time researcher working in any part of the world and those who have contributed to research in the past.
Down the centuries, since scholarly communication is said to have begun in ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago, research has typically been communicated in parallel by speech and writing. However, since the beginning of modern research in Western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries flow of information is facilitate largely by professional journals.
Ever since the first professional journal — Journal des Sçavans in France and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in England — commenced publication in 1665, the printed journal has become the primary vehicle of knowledge dissemination among scientists and scholars. Journals occupy a special place in scholarly communication, not only because they help scientists get the status of a permanent record for their new findings but also to establish ‘credentials’.
In the early days there were a few researchers and few journals, but in the past three centuries the number of researchers has increased exponentially. Since the early 1700s, the number of scholars in scientific disciplines has doubled every 15 years, according to de Solla Price.
With the rising number of journals, academies and societies which were traditionally publishing them could no longer cope with the numbers and enterprising commercial publishers started taking over the burden of publishing many of the journals. That paved the way for privatization of knowledge. Today there are reportedly 25,000 refereed journals in the areas of science, technology and medicine (STM), many of them published by commercial publishers. As of late 2010, Elsevier published 1610 journals, Springer 588 journals and Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 299 journals.
Three companies dominate: Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley. Elsevier is the dominant force in Science, Technology, and Medical (STM) publishing. Commercial publishers have established considerable monopoly power, playing a role in 60 per cent of all peer-reviewed journals, owning 45 per cent and publishing 17 per cent on behalf of non-profit organizations. In STM, seven major commercial publishers account for 30 per cent of peer-reviewed titles but 60 per cent of the market’s revenue.”
the advent of new technologies such as the Internet and the World Wide Web, it became possible for scientists around the world to look for alternatives to journals. For example, in 1991 Paul Ginsparg of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) came up with arXiv, an electronic preprint service for the physics community. Although there had been preprint services for physicists earlier, such as the ones at the Centre for Research in Nuclear Energy, Geneva (CERN) and Stanford Linear Accelerator laboratory (SLAC), it was arXiv which really revolutionized sharing of information among physicists in a fully online manner. With dwindling budgets and rising costs of journals, scholarly communication today is at a crossroads. We need to think seriously about how scholarly information can be shared efficiently and at an affordable cost. Even librarians in affluent institutions in the United States feel that current methods of scholarly communication are unsustainable and proving to be excessively restrictive.