Rebel Alliances and Evil Empires in the Academic Universe

Probably the hottest topic discussed in my Collection Management class so far this semester is the problem of publishing conglomerates and their “Big Deals,” which lock libraries or library consortia into multi-year contracts with sometimes diminishing levels of access to online journals and eBooks for increasingly larger portions of the library budget pie. In one article, we read that some libraries spend over 50% of their total budget for collection management on these Big Deals from companies such as Springer, Wiley, and (the Emperor Palpatine of the academic world at the moment) Elsevier.

A great many people have summarised the arguments against Elsevier and the issues faced by libraries far better than I can, so here’s a small run-down of articles that have caught my attention lately.

In an age where most cost-saving measures at libraries include cutting subscriptions to printed versions of journals in favor of increasing online access to articles*, maintaining online access to major titles is an increasingly important consideration for libraries. However, sometimes not all volumes of a journal are available to researchers online. This is due to a variety of reasons related to the copyright restrictions on newer or older issues; the availability of funds for digitisation of issues published before computers; or fluctuations in what the publisher thinks libraries should be paying for each article.

In January, a sensationalised articled in the Atlantic accused JSTOR (an online archive of digitised academic publications, JSTOR acts as a hub or nexus for a wide range of journals but is not, itself, a publisher) of taking articles written “for free” by university and publicly-funded researches and selling it back to them. According to the Atlantic,

The public — which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system — has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.

The article has major flaws, and was duly masterfully critiqued by by Nancy Sims, the Copyright Program Librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, who pointed out that academic publishing is full of problems. She writes,

But McKenna is really wrong about a bunch of specifics, and there are a lot of people out there (with a lot of money), who want to shape the narrative around the economics of academic publishing in a really different direction. This article is in a fairly high-profile and general interest publication, but it’s so factually incorrect in so many different ways that it invites ridicule to the whole position.

Sims’ article goes to the heart of the issues about journal subscription and individual article prices in academic publishing. As Sims’ points out, some for-profit publishers (such as Elsevier) make 32-42% profits from selling access to academic articles. That’s a bit ridiculous, if you ask me, and while I recognise that this is capitalism at work, my tree-hugging hippie socialist scumbag cries out for more open access to academic research, especially in important areas such as health research.

I fully support the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 which requires researchers who received funding from the National Institutes of Health to post their final, peer-reviewed papers on PubMed Central, an archival hub like JSTOR that is run by the National Library of Medicine, no later than a year after publication. The Consolidated Appropriations Act still allows publishers to get their share, in that in order to stay up to date with the most current research being published, scientists and doctors must subscribe to high-impact journals in their fields or pay for access to individual articles.

However, there is a great deal of opposition to initiatives like this from the major publishers, who view it as a threat to the profits they can make by selling access to research articles. For Elsevier in particular, their exorbitant journal and article prices were compounded by their support for the Research Works Act, which seeks to protect publishers’ profits by counteracting the Consolidated Appropriations Act. The RWA is often mentioned as related to the erstwhile SOPA and PIPA legislation that was shouted down by the combined voices of the Internet’s major players. Perhaps inspired by the Internet blackout movement and led by Timothy Gowers, a prominent mathematician at the University of Cambridge and winner of the Fields Medal, and his blog article from 21 January, over 7,700 researchers from around the world was signed an online pledge not to publish in, edit, or review journals published by Elsevier. Two great summaries of this action can be found in The Chronicle of Higher Education and on NPR’s On The Media.

In the wake of this mass outcry, Elsevier announced on Monday that it was withdrawing its support for the RWA. However, their carefully-worded announcement means that supporters of open access have only won the battle, not the way. As the humourous @FakeElsevier twitter warned:

Note that our relenting had nothing to do w/ ur puny rebellion. Now witness the firepower of this FULLY ARMED AND OPERATIONAL BATTLE STATION

Mike Taylor at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW!, fully decodes Elsevier’s announcement and this article from the New York Times does a good job of presenting both sides of the debate and contextualising it in terms of current American politics. It’s a thorny subject, and the levity of @FakeElsevier only highlights the real drama that researchers, librarians, and politicians around the world are paying close attention to.

* At the PMA Library, for example, we’ve recently cancelled our print subscription to all five series of Physical Review, each single issue of which was published weekly and weighed in at about the same size as the Austin yellow pages, in favor of improving access to the online versions.

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