Over four years ago, I wrote a post about how EBSCO had shut off my institution’s links to all Harvard Business Review articles after we declined their “generous” offer to let us pay to use articles already available through a database we were paying for. At the time that we were asked about this, we had no idea that EBSCO stipulated that all content in Business Source Premier other than HBR could be linked to for classroom use. HBR could not. But around 2008, HBR “generously” offered to allow their content to be used in the classroom so long as we were willing to pay an additional premium. We refused and they turned all of our HBR permalinks off. What surprised me most about this was not that HBR and EBSCO were trying to suck every dollar they could  out of libraries; it was that they included permalinks to things they didn’t want people linking to in classrooms in the first place. How many people use database permalinks for anything other than classroom use? Anyone??? Of course, one could simply get around that by assigning students to read a particular HBR article and telling them what database it’s available in. But I’m guessing that falls under this statement in their license: “Academic licensees may not use this content in electronic reserves, electronic course packs, persistent linking from syllabi or by any other means of incorporating the content into course resources.”

Apparently, this has been a part of the terms of every Business Source Premier contract for many years, but who bothers to read those pesky things, right?

And lots of Universities knew this before August. Some paid the piper and others pushed the cost onto their students (or sneakily encourages them to violate the terms). For example, here’s a statement from a business school syllabus from a Fall 2012:

This course does not use a textbook.  A coursepack containing all readings for this course is available through Harvard Publishing.   The link to obtain the materials is  [redacted].  Many of the materials are Harvard Business Review articles which you can access online through EBSCOhost Business Source Complete, available through the [redacted] Library.  Unfortunately, our agreement with Harvard specifically prohibits use of the EBSCO system for course-related purposes.  The following statement is included on the last page of each article downloaded through EBSCO: “Academic licensees may not use this content in electronic reserves, electronic course packs, persistent linking from syllabi or by any other means of incorporating the content into course resources.”  Accordingly, you should purchase the coursepack from Harvard Publishing.

We received a similar offer (to that of Norwich) at Portland State, a Library that has known nothing but budget cuts since I got here. I was extremely pleased that our Business Librarian didn’t even consider paying for their educational license. Libraries get shafted by publishers enough already. Like when Norwich had to pay over $3000 for America: History and Life Full Text just so we could get access to a single journal. Or when we had to buy a big Taylor and Francis package at Portland State after T&F backed out of EBSCO’s databases (oh wait, but EBSCO made up for it by adding in a bunch of crappy and/or OA journals that no one wanted, so clearly they didn’t need to decrease the amount we all are paying for their databases). If we were going to draw a line in the sand, this was a good one to draw because what they were asking for was so egregious.

Back in 2009, only a few institutions had been called on their use of HBR in online classes, so there wasn’t a lot of hubbub about it. Now, Harvard or EBSCO or both of them have decided to up the ante since I guess not all that many people over the past four years have taken advantage of their amazing offer to pay for the same content twice (shocking!). In August they turned off permalinks to many of their 500 most popular, most linked to, articles. Clearly none of us keep up with our licensing agreements, because everyone is acting like all this came out of nowhere. Ummm no. You were just acting in violation of the terms of use. Crazy terms of use, yes, but terms someone at your library agreed to by entering into a contract with EBSCO.

What I find funny (I actually find a lot of this funny) is that Harvard itself has an open access mandate that has been adopted by Harvard Business School. They believe in sharing their own work widely for the public good, but when it comes to things they publish through HBS Press, they want to lock it up and wring every possible cent they can out of it. In their response to critics in the Financial Times, the author, Das Narayandas of Harvard Business School, writes “we are not alone among publishers in trying to do this in a sustainable manner.” That may be true, but I believe that they may be the only publisher that is actually asking an institution to pay twice for the same content so they can use it in a class. With every other journal we pay to access through a database, we are allowed to use their articles in our classes. ONLY Harvard does not allow this. And they make the point that they’ve always charged for classroom use of Harvard Business Case Studies. True, but they don’t also charge libraries to provide individual access to them.

What’s cute is that in the FT article, Mr. Narayandas is basically lecturing business faculty on the economics of information (directly addressing the author of the book Information Wants to be Shared), when he doesn’t seem to understand how every other journal works with libraries. How does this make their content more accessible? If their “aspiration is and always has been to maintain HBR’s availability for the classroom,” it certainly doesn’t trump their #1 aspiration which has nothing to do with disseminating knowledge ($$$$$). And, in the end, it will almost certainly lead to fewer faculty assigning HBR articles in their classes (already many have purged Harvard’s case studies from their reading lists because they were so damn expensive). Wouldn’t it be ironic if the result of all this is that Harvard Business School Press’ content was no longer thought of as the gold standard for MBA courses? Hey, a girl can dream!

My favorite part of this is the Harvard Business School Press rep’s sweetly innocent comment in the Financial Times that “any associated licence fees… simply shift the payment for these articles from the school to the library.” Oh thanks! How kind of you to spare the poor hardscrable business programs from paying these fees and instead making those libraries who are just swimming in money pay. This is actually kind of an evil genius move. Librarians hate making their faculty unhappy. Most will bend over backwards to do things to win the esteem of their faculty. We hate saying no to our constituents (why do I picture an EBSCO executive whispering these exact words into a Harvard Business School Press executive’s ear over martinis?). So, probably some libraries have actually paid these exorbitant fees because their department asked them to.

But the author of the FT article does write something else which I find encouraging: “students can continue to gain access via libraries and other research portals to HBR articles faculty members would like to recommend.” Ah, so, faculty, just recommend that your students read articles from Harvard Business Review. Tell them that you strongly recommend (wink wink) x article and tell them that it’s in Business Source Premier. Apparently, Harvard is completely ok with you doing that (they said it themselves!), so it’s all good.

Many academic libraries have been facing horrific budget cuts year after year. We cut to the bone one year and think it can’t get any leaner, and then we have to do it all over again a year or two later. We care deeply about making the materials faculty and students need available to them and it hurts our hearts to cut things that we know are needed and used. So if some guy in a suit whose publishing house had revenues of $165 million last year ($30 million more than in 2010 — what recession?!?) comes and tells me that his information is so high quality that he has to protect it by charging the library TWICE for it, I would slam my office door in his face.

We have to draw the line somewhere, right? If not now, when?

Image credit: “A line in the sand” by Martin Grüner Larsen, on Flickr