Open Access Week: The ‘Disastrous System’ of Scholarly Communication

“Reduced to its essentials,” wrote Robert Darnton, one-time Harvard librarian, in a New York Review of Books essay, “it goes like this:

[W]e academics devote ourselves to research; we write up the results as articles for journals; we referee the articles in the process of peer reviewing; we serve on the editorial boards of journals; we also serve as editors ( all of this unpaid, of course); and then we buy back our own work at ruinous prices in the form of journal subscriptions–not that we pay for it ourselves, of course; we expect our library to pay for it, and therefore we have no knowledge of our complicity in a disastrous system.

So, how did we get to this point?

For more years than any librarian cares to remember, libraries have been paying though the nose for scholarly communication, or rather their institutions have.  In the glory days of academic libraries, now more than sixty years ago, libraries had small budgets, but the cost of scholarly communication–books, journal articles, newspapers, etc.–was also small. In the fifties, sixties and even the early seventies, libraries often bought just about everything faculty said they needed.  Moreover, students  could also make requests and those were generally met as well.

But those were the days of $20 periodicals, the days of books that cost at most $15 each, and when entire sets of encyclopedias could be had for under $500.  Those were the days, my friends, and most of us around for those days really did think they’d never end.

But by the late seventies, they did begin to end, and by the eighties, they were unraveling faster than anyone could have imagined.  Today, academic libraries are lucky if they can afford only half of what they need.  Libraries share part of the blame. Those of us who work in them were blindsided by the skyrocketing costs.  When we did notice, no one else did.  The very few ears we could hold simply could not believe what we were saying: increases of 100, 200 and even 500%.  Surely, we were kidding. Alas, we were not.

Part of the blame, too, rests with faculty.  Publish or perish became the byword of the day, and faculty outvied one another to get in the most prestigious of journals, whatever their cost.  Of course,faculty wanted those journals in the library, too, and so librarians bought them.  Tenure and promotion committees didn’t help as they often granted either only for those faculty who published in the most prestigious (and often the most costly) journals.  When it became clear that libraries could no longer afford this  model, everyone was ‘in blood stepped in so far that, should [we] wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.’

But then this thing called the Internet appeared, and it seemed it might well be the answer. Costly print journals that also cost even more to process and keep on a shelf gave way to electronic ones. Of course, ‘publishing’ an electronic journal cost virtually (pun intended) nothing and therein was the rub.  What had become the cash cow for many publishers might well have dissolved overnight.  But publishers, the last in this gang of three, being enterprising and bright, came up with the idea of the big deal: offer libraries hundreds of journals but at an aggregated cost.  Honestly, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

For example, during the print heyday of Dacus, we offered about 3,500 journals.  Today, students have access to more than 30,000.  More is better, right?  More also means more money, too.  Over the last fifteen years, our materials budget has doubled to just over one million dollars. It increases on average about 7.5% Trying to scrape together those funds is not an easy task.  For example, we have some databases to which we subscribe that cost as much as modest sports cars, just short of the $30,000 mark.

Meanwhile, publishers today are turning to a pay-to-play model in which authors are charged between $2,000 and $4,000 for a peer review.  This is no guarantee that said author will appear in a given online journal.  It’s merely the cost of admission to the narthex of the museum, so to speak.   Granted, many of these pay-to-play online journals have acceptance rates of 50% or higher.  Think about this model: pay-to-play publishers pick up four figures for peer review, for an article that will cost them next to nothing to post to a website.  Libraries will then be charged five or more figures to gain access to the journal.  No wonder Darnton called it “disastrous.”

Is there another solution?

Quite possibly that answer may be found in Open  Access, something I have written about in these pages before. With the addition of our Digital Commons, we are now set up for journal publishing of our own, or in conjunction with institutions in the state or region. Open access has it own problems to be sure, as Beall’s list proves.  But titles on that list are often the pay-to-play ones mentioned above.  Of course, for open access to work, tenure and promotion committees will have to agree to recognize it and/or digital commons publishing as genuine scholarly publishing.  With the right kind of peer review, that should not be a problem, though peer review is not the perfect academic imprimatur, either.  If faculty on those committees refuse to accept open access,we’re back where we started with just about any but the largest of libraries facing financial disaster.

Librarians and faculty working together can help fix this problem, but both groups are going to have to sacrifice some much beloved sacred cows in order for it to work.  If we do not, we’ll perpetuate a model than no university can support.



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