20 years of cowardice: the pathetic response of American universities to the crisis in scholarly publishing

abernard102@gmail.com 2012-05-03


“When Harvard University says it can not afford something, people notice. So it was last month when a faculty committee examining the future of the university’s libraries declared that the continued growth of journal subscription fees was unsustainable, even for them. The accompanying calls for faculty action are being hailed as a major challenge to the traditional publishers of scholarly journals. Would that it were so. Rather than being a watershed event in the movement to reform scholarly publishing, the tepidness of the committee’s recommendations, and the silence of the university’s administration, are just the latest manifestation of the toothless response of American universities to the ‘serials crisis’ that has plagued libraries for decades... The solutions have always been clear. Universities should have stopped paying for subscriptions, forcing publishers to adopt alternative economic models. And they should have started to reshape the criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure, so that current and aspiring faculty did not feel compelled to publish in journals that were bankrupting the system. But they did neither, choosing instead to let the problem fester. And even as cries from the library community intensify, our universities continue to shovel billions of dollars a year to publishers while they repeatedly fail to take the simple steps that could fix the problem overnight. Virtually all of the problems in scholarly publishing stem from the simple act, repeated millions of times a year, of a scholar signing over copyright in their work to the journal in which their work is to appear. When they do this they hand publishers a weapon that enables them to extract almost unlimited amounts of money from libraries at the same research institutions that produced the work in the first place. The problem arises because research libraries are charged with obtaining for scholars at their institution access to the entire scholarly output of their colleagues. Not just the most important stuff. Not just the most interesting stuff. Not just the most affordable stuff. ALL OF IT. And publishers know this. So they raise prices on their existing journals. And they launch new titles. And then they raise their prices. What can libraries do? They have to subscribe to these journals. Their clientele wants them – indeed, they need them to do their work. They can’t cancel their subscription to Journal X in favor of the cheaper Journal Y, because the contents of X are only available in X. Every publisher is a monopoly selling an essential commodity. No wonder things have gotten out of control... Expenditures on scholarly journals at American research libraries quadrupled from 1986 to 2005, increasing at over three times the rate of inflation. This despite a massive reduction in costs due to a major shift towards electronic dissemination. These rates of growth continue nearly unabated, even in a terrible economy. (For those interested in more details, I point you to SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who tracks journal pricing and revenues)... Just as the serials crisis was hitting its stride in the mid-1990′s, fate handed universities an out – the internet... This radical transformation in how scholarly works were disseminated should have been accompanied by a corresponding radical shift in the economics of journal publishing. But it barely made a dent. Publishers, who were now primarily shipping electrons instead of ink on paper, kept raising their subscription prices as if nothing had happened. And universities let them get away with it. By failing to show even a hint of creativity or initiative in seizing the opportunity presented by the internet to reshape the system of scholarly communication in a productive way, the leaders of American universities condemned themselves to 15 more years (and counting) of rising costs, and decreasing value. Their inaction also cost them the chance to reclaim the primary role they once held (through their university presses) in communicating the output of their scholars... A new economic model, which came to be known as ‘open access’, emerged as an alternative to the subscription journals. Under open access the costs of publishing would be bourn up front by research sponsors, with the finished product freely available to all. In addition to the obvious good greatly expanding the reach of the scholarly literature, open access was largely free of the economic inefficiencies that created the serials crisis in the first place, and enjoyed very strong support from university libraries across the country. But despite its manifold advantages, universities as a whole did little to help it succeed... The biggest obstacle to the rise of open access journals was (and to a large extent still is) the major role that journal titles play in how universities evaluate candidates for jobs and promotions. In most academic disciplines, careers are built by publishing papers in prestigious journals... Almost everyone I know thinks that simply looking at journal titles is a stupid way to




08/16/2012, 06:08

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Date tagged:

05/03/2012, 06:30

Date published:

05/01/2012, 15:31