By Meredith Farkas | August 1, 2011
I loved Barbara Fister’s recent post, “Breaking News: Academic Journals are Really Expensive!”, about faculty who seem surprised that journals cost the library a lot. Kind of amazing to think that these are people who produce and review content for these journals. And the quote from Peter Murray-Rust’s blog stating that “[librarians] should have altered us earlier to problems instead of acquiescing to so much of the dystopia” was extremely depressing, especially coming from someone who is in-the-know about scholarly publishing. Beyond telling our faculty time and again (for DECADES!) about these issues and keeping them apprised of the situation as we cut and cut and tried to get more with less through “big deal” packages, what should we have done? Refused to pay for journals that are critically needed by students and faculty when they raise their rates or make deals that make it more difficult for us to get access? How often have we seen cases where faculty have supported moves like that??? When we read reports that show that most academics do not see us so much as partners in the educational endeavor but as purchasers and providers of the content they need for their research and teaching, what clout do we have in many institutions in these sorts of conversations?
A little over a year ago, I posted about how the Society for Military History had pulled the Journal of Military History out of the major aggregators that had previously offered it and signed an exclusive deal with EBSCO. What had previously been accessible up to the current issue in Academic Search Premier suddenly was only available in the full-text versions of America: History and Life and Historical Abstracts (which is a cost on top of the regular Am Hist and Life and Hist. Abs subscriptions). And given the poor selection of full-text in both products, we’d essentially be paying around $3500 for one journal. At a school with major military history programs, this was a major issue.
Immediately after I learned about this, I urged my faculty who were members of the Society to express their concern/dissatisfaction with this change. None of them followed up by telling me they had done this. Instead, they urged me to find a way to pay for online access to the journal (which we eventually did, to my chagrin) and a few acted as apologists for the Society’s actions. I, as a librarian, have little power to convince a society that they are making a decision that is bad for the institutions their faculty teach at. Their members, on the other hand, have much more power. By choosing not to take any action on things like this (either as members of organizations or writers/reviewers/editors for these journals), faculty perpetuate the scholarly publishing crisis. Eventually, Norwich may not be able to afford $3500 (or more by then) for a package from which they want only one journal. What then? But I have to say that we at the library were also complicit by paying for that access. I was strongly against it, but in the end, we knew it would end up hurting students if we didn’t get it since the faculty had access through their membership. If the faculty don’t have the library’s back, it’s difficult to take any sort of stand against unethical publishing/licensing practices.
Recently, I read “An Open Access Tale” at ProfHacker (a great blog for those in higher ed, btw!), a vignette about a faculty member doing research and discovering useful content in Open Access journals and then wondering if they should use this content in their research or just stick with “the usual suspects” in their field:
I think this captures one of the dilemmas scholars of the 21st-century face. While some of us roll our eyes at Wikipedia and blog postings that make the footnotes of student assignments, many scholars are probably rolling their eyes at graduate students or their own colleagues who cite publications from journals they’ve never heard of. Some of them are probably thinking, if this was an article worth publishing, it would’ve been published in *The* Journal of [Your Field Here] Studies, or at least in the Monumenta [Your Field Here]ica.
And if that attitude is pervasive in one’s field, who is going to publish in an open access journal, especially if they are on the tenure track? (Even if they’re already tenured, many will still want to published in the noted journals in their field.) And how can these open access journals gain prominence if the prominent scholars (at least in our country) aren’t publishing there? It seems like a Catch-22 that will never resolve until academic departments and universities take a stand and say “this is important to us and we will change our practices to support it.”
ProfHacker also recently asked faculty how much they would pay monthly to get access to a database they need as an individual subscriber. To have a blog post that entertains this possibility shows me how broken the relationship is between academia and scholarly publishing. Academic journals would not exist without the academics who publish in them, review their articles and serve on their editorial boards. And there is no recognition of that labor when their institutions (through their libraries) are charged exorbitant amounts to provide access to those journals. There were many journals at Norwich that I had to cut in which our faculty published frequently or served on the editorial boards. Clearly, we need a new system. We need to go back to a model where scholarly publishing is about providing access to scholarship, not about making a profit, and probably the best place for this to happen is through universities themselves. But this will never happen when departments and universities are unwilling to take courageous stands to change individual faculty’s practices and to support open access publishing at their institution. And what will it take — how much do they have to lose — to make that stand seem like the only reasonable option?