Could Harvard Library’s “untenable situation” regarding journal costs help move scholars toward open access?

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

Thus begins the memorandum dated April 17, 2012 from the Harvard Library Faculty Advisory Council. The memorandum, addressed to Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units, is subtitled “Major Periodicals Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained.”

The memo notes, with an unapologetic jab at commercial profit-taking, that Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these “certain publishers” now approaches $3.75 million.

Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

This, insists the Faculty Advisory Council, is unsustainable, and “financially untenable.” The memo makes particular reference to bundling practices that put “major, high-use journals…in with journals consulted far less frequently.”

The memo solicits ideas from faculty, while also offering several options that faculty and the Library might take to address the situation. In addition to seeking other sustainable subscription pricing options, several options relate directly to open access:

  • Follow-through on depositing of research into the University’s institutional repository, consistent with faculty-initiated open access policies.
  • Consider submission of articles to open access journals; “move prestige to open access.”
  • Leverage participation on journal editorial boards to push for open access publishing options, or consider resigning in protest.
  • Encourage professional associations “to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations.”

The recommendation that faculty participate in “moving prestige to open access” is especially powerful. Scholars are naturally and understandably drawn to publish their research in high quality, high reputation journals. It is reasonable to suppose that a journal’s prestige will enhance their own. But these are also often the very journals that publishers have priced out of affordability. This recommendation recognizes and affirms that a journal’s prestige actually originates with the scholars themselves. If scholars withheld their articles from these high-priced journals it would not take long for them to lose their prestige. Conversely, if scholars helped to legitimize open access journals with their articles it would not take too long for open access to gain a similar level of prestige.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Clearly, Harvard University, with historically deep pockets, wields tremendous influence and leverage. Where Harvard leads others may follow. Assuming this is not just a cynical ploy to negotiate a better deal with publishers, which I cannot believe hearing the passion of Professor Robert Darnton, this may very well become a catalyst for fundamental change in scholarly communication. It may serve to empower more scholars to move toward open access.

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Libraries & OA, OA Policies, Open Access
2 comments on “Could Harvard Library’s “untenable situation” regarding journal costs help move scholars toward open access?
  1. […] Could Harvard Library's "untenable situation" regarding journal costs help move scholars toward open… […]

  2. […] the April 17, 2012 memorandum sent by the Harvard Library Faculty Advisory Council (covered by me here), which among other things, encouraged faculty to submit their research articles to open access […]

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