Now we know first-hand: Editorial board of librarians resign over journal publisher’s restrictive licensing

The entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration, published by the Taylor & Francis Group, has resigned in protest over the publisher’s restrictive author licensing policies. Brian Mathews, who was preparing a special issue of JLA on library futures as guest editor, reported the mass resignation (including the text of the board’s statement) this last weekend on his The Ubiquitous Librarian blog. In the post, Mathews also linked to a post from Chris Bourg, one of the former board members, and from Jason Griffey, who earlier declined to participate in Mathews’s project due to pointed reservations regarding T&F’s author policies.

Editorial boards resigning in protest over publisher policies is not new (see the Open Access Directory’s “Journal declarations of independence” page [Update: I should have clarified that this page lists not only boards that resigned but who also took their journals [or replacements] into a less restrictive publishing environment, including open access.]). Indeed, just this last October, the editorial board of the journal Organization & Environment (SAGE) resigned over allegations of publisher intrusion on the journal’s academic freedom (see article in Inside High ED from October 29, 2012). What is interesting is how this issue has arrived at the door steps of libraries with new force and nuanced complexion. Once upon a time, it was sufficient that libraries played their primary role in providing access to information resources for “the many” who might not (OK, let’s just say they simply wouldn’t) be able to afford on their own. Publishers have never been happy with this, though occasionally they grant the marketing value of libraries—helping them sell books by enhancing public awareness.

Publishers have apparently been smarter with journals, pricing institutional subscriptions based on the assumption that one (print) copy received into the library would be accessed/read by “the many.” I’m not exactly sure how they pulled that off. Can you imagine a generalized institutional pricing system for book purchases? (Actually, I can. Kevin Smith reported here and here on the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. Had the Court ruled in favor of the publisher, libraries could have faced precisely this kind of institutional pricing system. He says libraries “dodged a bullet” with this decision. But I digress.) Perhaps libraries thought, in our typically good-natured way, that it was reasonable for publishers to ask more based on this assumption. The problem with this calculus was run-away subscription pricing. Publishers reasoned they had captive customers in the libraries, and that “the many” would protest loudly if access was jeopardized. Problem was, while the demand was presumed to be inelastic, the budget also proved to be inelastic. We have been watching this story play-out for at least the last 30 years now.

Anyway, in the print world, no one, least of all libraries, really cared whether academic authors were getting exploited regarding their intellectual property rights. It wasn’t our business to care. Our singular mission was to provide access to published information resources for our constituencies, which we would do happily, assuming it could be done with some sense of economy. Print was the only game in town. Authors signing away their copyrights was simply the cost of doing business, and the price for getting published. Nobody, not even authors, really gave it a second thought (sadly, many still don’t).

This latest incident is a signal that something has changed in Libraryland, and librarians are awakening to it. It’s not only that we’ve been increasingly priced-out of providing access to many important and high-demand resources for our patrons. The BIG change, of course, is the whole paradigm shift in publishing from print to electronic, which includes the birth of a mode of “democratic publishing” available to anyone on the web. With this change has come the prospect of alternatives—alternatives to publishers, and (frankly) alternatives to libraries.

Something else has changed in this shift. Academic authors are starting to discover that they wield significant power in their research products. They don’t need to sell their souls for the right to be published. It’s no longer the publisher with a printing press that wields all the power, or makes all the rules. With alternatives abounding, the truth has been exposed that publishers desperately need author content in order to stay in business. Authors are starting to demand a more equitable relationship, or they’ll take their business elsewhere. (Presently, it would seem the only major lingering problems for academic authors are their out of touch colleagues, and antiquated policies of academic advancement that are still wedded to the old publisher-controlled system.)

Better late than never, astute libraries, too, are beginning to realize that it needs to be our business to care about authors, including advocating for them regarding intellectual property rights. The irony in this incident is that library researchers as academic authors are now being sensitized to the no longer acceptable practices of publishers in this regard. Creative libraries, too, are beginning to reach out to authors in the provision of direct publishing services, promising to by-pass traditional publishers altogether.

Brian Mathews, who was preparing his special issue of JLA as guest editor before all this blew-up, said he was asked why he didn’t just take the project to an open access journal. His answer was curious. “The reason I agreed to take on the guest editorship of this issue was specifically because it was in a traditional journal and distributed by a traditional publisher. I like the idea of taking disruptive content and baking it into a conventional platform. I’m a fan of OA but this was one instance where I was intentionally aiming for something with more confinement. You know, change from within, and all that” (emphases his). In an update, Mathews was even more adamant: “I get that librarians are passionate about OA and that OA definitely provides some high quality options—but I feel that a person should have the right to publish anywhere they want for whatever reason they want. … I guess you can say I’m pro-choice when it comes to publishing. I only care about the quality of the ideas expressed” (again, emphases his). I like a lot of Brian’s forward-thinking ideas on library topics. But while I can respect his opinion (I also applaud choice), and I sympathize with the fact that this news ruined his weekend, I think he is simply mistaken in this case. Libraries have given publishers too many passes. I’m siding with the editorial board on this one.

Of course this is only a first (and largely symbolic) step. Libraries admittedly cannot easily, quickly, or single-handedly extricate themselves from this ingrained system. We do still and must serve our constituencies first in the provision of needed information resources. But I think the point that this incident surfaced is that now we know first-hand how the current academic publishing system has been treating its authors, even as we have already long known (but felt powerless to avoid) what it has been asking us to pay to keep the system in place. With this new knowledge we can no longer go along as before. From now on we continue as knowing if not willing accomplices.

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Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Scholarly Journals
One comment on “Now we know first-hand: Editorial board of librarians resign over journal publisher’s restrictive licensing
  1. A^3 says:

    The answer to Brian Mathews dilemma is, of course, simply to include a paper on the move in whatever OA journal the editorial board now sets up. When an editorial board resigns over an OA-related issue like this they should then start a new open access journal and make strenuous efforts to inform readers and submitters that the intent is that the new journal should be regarded by the community as the inheritor-in-spirit of the community and prestige of the old title. Yes, there will be a problem with things like impact factors and indexing in the short term, but just resigning en masse doesn’t solve the problem, it just creates a short term storm of publicity. If the publisher can weather that storm then the publisher wins. Only if the editorial board can bring the community with them to a new forum does the journal lose (and even then the big deals often mean they won’t actually lose financially in the short term). It SHUOLD be the case that it is the academic prestige of the editorial board (and their supporters the reviewers) who provide the prestige for the journal. Unfortunately, things like indexing and impact factors have partly or mostly usurped this. But a journal that loses most of its community of authors isn’t going to retain its impact factor without finding a new academic group to build on.

    If the editors do this, then Brian Mathews loses the subversive nature of the special issue on openness being published in a closed venue. However, covering the move itself in an editorial in a newly established open journal is the obvious move, though does require there to be that new journal.

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