A survey of a tract by metes and bounds is the oldest known manner of describing land and is the outgrowth of the art of surveying as practiced in the olden times.

Frank Clark,
A Treatise on the Law of Surveying and Boundaries

“Digital preservation represents one of the grand challenges facing higher education,” wrote a working group of influential academic administrators and librarians who participated in a special meeting convened at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in September 2005 (Waters 2005). Their statement, titled “Urgent Action Needed to Preserve Scholarly Electronic Journals,” signaled the intensity of the broad concern that had been voiced for more than a decade, and summoned the educational community to action. The statement emphasized that preserving scholarly electronic publications has become a critical need as e-publication comes to dominate scholarly expression and as user communities increasingly depend on electronic publications much as they used to rely on paper.

Ten years earlier, an active thread of discussion on the issue of archiving e-journals appeared on the ARL-EJOURNAL list. Sharon McKay of Blackwell Publishing initiated the discussion by asking who should be responsible:

Who should do it, then? Non-profit organizations? Do we need a new organization formed specifically to perform the function of e-journal archiving? Should there be one for each continent? Each nation? Each language? What are the implications for access, and what kind of economic model would work? Is it possible to have publishers to establish something like an escrow deposit for archival data that would be available to subscribers, regardless? What technical issues should be considered, and how do we prepare for unknown technological changes in the future which will affect storage techniques and access? (McKay 1996)

These questions remain relevant. Even as academic libraries recognize the growing concern over e-journal archiving, many are unclear on the dimensions of the problem, the alternatives for action, and what role they might play. In the past few years, several promising alternatives for addressing e-journal preservation have emerged. To help libraries better understand the emerging strategies and options and determine their best course of action, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) agreed that a survey of the e-journal archiving landscape was needed. CLIR commissioned the Cornell University Library Research and Assessment Services Department to undertake this review.

Why Is E-Journal Archiving Such a Concern?

The “Urgent Action” statement listed several trends that raise concerns over the long-term viability of serial literature. These trends include publishers’ shift to electronic distribution, users’ preference for online resources, and libraries’ ability to respond to these two trends, given constrained budgets.

The Shift to Electronic Publishing

Many have noted the difficultly of determining how many peer-reviewed journals are currently online, but all agree that growth has been dramatic over the past decade. In 1996, Stephen P. Harter and Hak Joon Kim identified 131 refereed or peer-reviewed e-journals. Ten years later, estimates range in the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. In 2003, Carol Tenopir found inconsistencies in using Ulrich’s International Periodicals Directory to determine the number of scholarly journals available online. A June 2006 search of that database for all active, online, and refereed journal titles confirmed these inconsistencies but did return 14,338 hits (1,429 of which are open-access titles), representing 62% of all 23,187 active and refereed titles listed. (The remaining 38% were print only). The Directory of Open Access Journals, by comparison, listed 2,044 peer-reviewed open-access journals in February 2006, up 600 from the year before (Tenopir 2004; Van Orsdel and Born 2006).

As online access grows, publishers are beginning to consider eliminating print runs, although the number of electronic-only titles is still a significant minority of all publications (Ware 2005, 194). The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is undertaking an effort to identify journals that have gone to an electronic-only format.1 In 2003, the British Library commissioned Electronic Publishing Services Ltd. to project publishing trends to 2020. Among other things, the report looked at the migration from print to electronic formats for serial literature (including scholarly publications) in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The authors concluded that by 2016, half of all serial publications will have migrated to electronic-only format. They predicted that science, technology, and medical (STM) titles would be the first to switch. Large publishers will start with less-profitable titles. Smaller publishers, especially scholarly societies, will switch on the basis of rising print and distribution costs (Powell 2004). In a thoughtful paper, Karen Hunter from Elsevier outlined four issues that will have to be resolved before publishers move to electronic-only formats; among these issues is “bullet-proof digital archiving of electronic journals” (Hunter 2006).

User Preferences for Online Journals

Across all disciplines, faculty members and other users have come to value electronic access to scholarly literature, and use of such resources increases dramatically with their availability in electronic form (Guthrie and Schonfeld 2004; Tenopir 2003). A 2003 study by the Digital Library Federation (DLF) and CLIR reported that 75% of faculty members and graduate students surveyed use e-journals (Marcum and George 2003). A second study that year conducted for Ithaka confirmed these findings: of the 7,400 faculty members surveyed, 78% characterized electronic scholarly journals as “invaluable research tools.”2 Carol Tenopir found that for scientists, two-thirds of their reading now comes from e-resources, and in some fields, such as astronomy, the number is approaching 80% (Wolverton and Tenopir 2005). Although faculty members are concerned about how digital resources will be preserved, many accept the cancellation of print editions, especially in the sciences and social sciences, if a choice has to be made between retaining print or greater e-access (Salisbury, Vaughn, and Bajwa 2004).3

Library Response

Libraries have responded to changes in publishing and user behavior by increasing the percentage of their serials expenditures on licensing e-serials. Between 1995 and 2004, the median serial expenditure of ARL members rose from a little more than $3 million annually to just under $5.5 million—an increase of more than 80%. Meanwhile, the median amount devoted to e-journals increased from $156,754 to $2,348,463—nearly a 1,400% increase. E-serials represented 5% of total serials expenditures in 1995; by 2004, that portion had jumped to 42% (Kyrillidou and Young 2005). Cary Bruce of EBSCO estimates that for STM titles, online journal subscriptions will exceed print subscriptions by 2008 (Bruce 2005).

As libraries continue the shift to licensing e-journals, it is becoming more common to cancel the print equivalents in response to serials prices that have increased faster than inflation for the past two decades. In a 2004 Publishers Communication Group survey of 155 librarians from academic libraries worldwide, 84% of respondents said they cancel print when an electronic version is available. Forty percent of current subscription revenues for Elsevier’s Science Direct come from electronic-only subscriptions (Hunter 2006). In a recent ARL member survey, research libraries reported that they had canceled print equivalents for bundled e-content in 153 out of 266 contracts (58%) for 2006 (Hahn 2006). Print repositories are being developed at the regional and national levels to ensure that at least one paper copy remains accessible,4 but increasingly institutions recognize that print is not an acceptable archival format for electronic content.5

Concern over reliance on leased, rather than owned, electronic content has led libraries to include “perpetual access” rights in their licenses. According to the 2005 ARL member survey, 98% of contracts included a provision for some form of backfile access if a library cancels its electronic subscription. In identifying technical requirements for e-journal licenses, the California Digital Library, among others, requires that vendors agree that the institution will retain “use of material to which it previously subscribed, and allow users to continue to access that data in the event the subscription is cancelled” (California Digital Library 2006).

There are two primary options for ensuring continued access to licensed content. The first is to rely on the publisher or distributor to provide perpetual access. OCLC’s Electronic Collections Online (OCLC ECO), for example, stresses that the content it delivers from publishers will always be available to subscriber libraries, as long as they continue to pay access fees. Its policy states: “Your library retains the right to access all journals to which you have subscribed even after you discontinue subscriptions to any of them.”

The question, of course, is whether one can trust the publisher or distributor to keep older content accessible and unchanged, especially after the publisher stops distributing a title or the library stops subscribing to it. Hence, the second option found in many licenses: the requirement that publishers will give libraries copies of the files that constitute an e-journal. The NorthEast Research Libraries Consortium’s (NERL) Generic License provides a good example (NERL 2006). The agreement specifies that if the distributor discontinues any of the licensed materials or if either party terminates the agreement, the distributor must provide the library with one copy of subscribed materials in a mutually acceptable form. The license further stipulates that the library can make any copies needed into perpetuity “for purposes of archival preservation, refreshing, or migration.” Of course, few libraries are equipped either to preserve or to provide access to a large number of e-journal files. The NERL Generic License, therefore, also authorizes libraries to contract with third-party trusted archives or to participate in collaborative archiving endeavors to fulfill the requirements of this provision.

The NERL Generic License distinguishes between perpetual access and e-journal archiving. The focus of the former is to maintain access rights beyond subscription periods; the latter focuses on mitigating risk of permanent loss to ensure availability for future users. Nonetheless, e-journal archiving does not necessarily equate to ongoing access. One can have e-journal archiving without current access, but it is difficult to imagine how one could ensure perpetual access without having an e-journal archiving program. Jim Stemper and Susan Barribeau (2006) provide a thoughtful discussion on perpetual access in light of results from a survey of the University of Minnesota’s contracts with publishers and aggregators. They discovered that 64% of publishers with which Minnesota has license arrangements grant perpetual access rights. Perhaps ironically, more commercial publishers (72%) than society publishers and aggregators (56%) granted these rights. In many cases “perpetual” covered a limited number of years after cancellation of subscriptions; almost half the publishers specify that there will be or may be a charge associated with such access. Stemper and Barribeau concluded that only 20% of large research libraries would consider the lack of perpetual access assurances a reason for not signing a license with a publisher.

In addition to demanding perpetual access rights, libraries and others are establishing institutional repositories, using systems such as DSpace, Fedora, and bepress, and are joining with faculty members and professional organizations to urge publishers to provide self-archiving rights to authors. SHERPA/RoMEO, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee on Higher and Further Education Councils (JISC) and the University of Nottingham (U.K.), provides a list of 155 publishers’ copyright conditions that relate to authors who are archiving their work online. The service categorizes publishers and their conditions as follows: green publishers allow self-archiving of both preprints and postprints (45% of publishers); blue publishers allow self-archiving of postprints but not preprints (24%); yellow publishers allow self-archiving of preprints but not postprints (10%); and white publishers do not allow self-archiving (22%) (SHERPA/ RoMEO 2006).

Beyond perpetual access and self-archiving, institutions are beginning to ask that publishers establish preservation programs. In the 2005 ARL survey on large publisher bundles, most libraries reported that they had investigated the publishers’ archiving plans (71% of contracts); of those who did, only 60% found the publishers’ plans acceptable. This calls into question more than half of the archiving arrangements by publishers reported in that survey (Hahn 2006). As Mary Case commented, “No clause in a license guaranteeing perpetual access or any other user rights will help if the resource suddenly disappears for no matter what the reason” (Case 2004). Stemper and Barribeau (2006) hypothesize that

… a research library’s mandate to provide current access to journals for today’s scholars can be at odds with the mandate to keep those journals available to be accessed by scholars in the future. Librarians still value their stewardship role in the digital realm, but they perhaps fear that pressing the issue contractually is commercially and financially unrealistic at this time.

A Gathering Momentum

By 2000, libraries’ concerns over their e-journal vulnerabilities led many to press for trusted e-journal archiving programs that were independent of the publishers and did not rely on individual libraries’ efforts.6 The past several years have seen the following developments:

  • publishers collaborating with cultural institutions to provide dark archives for their backfiles;
  • in several countries, passage of legal deposit laws that mandate deposit of online publications, including e-journals;
  • the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) effort to create a freely accessible archive of government-funded research publications and the corresponding protests from commercial and not-for-profit publishers and societies;
  • the coupling of the open-access movement with preservation;
  • national libraries establishing or financially supporting e-journal archiving programs and emerging standards;
  • the launch of third-party and consortial efforts that focus on e-journals;
  • development of the draft “Audit Checklist for the Certification of Trusted Digital Repositories” by RLG and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (RLG 2005); and
  • road testing of the RLG-NARA certification requirements by the Center for Research Libraries in several digital repositories, with a heavy focus on e-journal preservation and an eagerly awaited report on the results due later this year.

These efforts are beginning to bear fruit, and academic libraries are now being offered viable options for e-journal archiving. This report looks at 12 of the more promising options and provides a means for assessing their viability and suitability for academic libraries.


1 Dianne McCutcheon, chief of technical services, National Library of Medicine, and Beth Weston, head of serial records section, National Library of Medicine. Telephone conversation with Anne Kenney, June 14, 2006.

2 “Electronic Research Resources” survey of 7,403 faculty members conducted in 2003 by Odyssey, a market research firm, on behalf of Ithaka (unpublished). A summary and additional information can be found at http://www.educause.com/ir/library/pdf/ERM0248.pdf (summary) and http://www.jstor.org/about/faculty.survey.ppt (PowerPoint with many charts and figures from the survey).

3 The Institute for Museum and Library Services has funded a study by Carol Tenopir, Donald King, and others on how to maximize library investment in digital collections (including e-journals), through better data gathering and analysis of user preferences. See http://web.utk.edu/~tenopir/imls/.

4 See, for example, Committee on Institutional Cooperation Libraries Pilot Cooperative Program to Archive Print Journals press release, http://www.cic.uiuc.edu/programs/JournalArchiving/archive/PressRelease/PrintJournalArchiving4-25-05.pdf, and the Center for Research Libraries Web site, at http://www.crl.edu/content.asp?l1=13&l2=19&l3=35&l4=64.

5 See, for example, California Digital Library 2006.

6 See, for example, “Minimum Criteria for an Archival Repository of Digital Scholarly Journals,” Digital Library Federation, May 15, 2000, http://www.diglib.org/preserve/criteria.htm. In 2001, The Mellon Foundation funded seven institutions to research archiving options. The results of these studies pointed to the need for collective action.