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The ecology of scientific knowledge production

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.

“The  scholarly  journal  marketplace  has  consolidated  in  recent  years. 

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.

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