Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fighting the high cost of scholarly communication

There are two items that I have read recently that provide specific and targeted responses to the rising costs of developing library collections, specifically related to scholarly communication.  SPARC just put out a "Now what?" follow-up to the Elsevier Boycott initiated by scholars themselves.  The document, "You've signed the Boycott, now what?", provides some "Next Steps" for researchers to take that address the overall problem beyond just Elsevier.  Foremost among these steps is, of course, considering publication in Open Access journals (no surprise, given the source).  Listed second, interestingly, is a link to the libraries that serve the intended audience. Too often, these discussions become segregated with researchers working separately from librarians.  This is, after all, how the Boycott originated - not from the library community, but from the scholarly community.  Thus, advising those who have taken the initiative to sign the boycott and who have shown their concern for the problem to see for themselves the scope of that problem, can help unite these communities into a single voice.  While other steps do involve the domain of influence that the researchers have (as creators of knowledge, editors of journals, and referees of articles), the final step recommends getting involved in the "larger policy debate".  It is necessary for this community to see that the problem extends well beyond Elsevier.

The other item that has come to my attention is the Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing from Harvard University.  It is very forthright in its first statement, describing the situation as "untenable".  This coming from Harvard, one of the most well-funded higher educational institutions.  Giving such facts as the 145% increase in costs from two providers over six years and 35% profit margins as background, the Council clearly states that the "costs are prohibitive" to continue the same contracts with at least two major (and unnamed) providers.  Also poignantly stated is how these increases "would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised," (what's missing is how much the costs may have already eroded these efforts).

The Council memo then provides a list of specific "options" that both faculty and librarians could take in response to potentially changing the subscriptions, including many of the same recommendations mentioned in the SPARC document mentioned above.  First in the list for faculty is making their own papers accessible in the university's institutional repository.  Also in the list for researchers is to encourage the professional organizations in their own fields to "take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations" (emphasis added).  Interestingly, of the 9 options listed, only three are addressed to librarians, none of which are possible without united efforts of both the scholarly and library communities.  Few publishers offer "pay-per-view" to libraries at a reasonable cost, or contracts that can be made public, or un-bundled packages.

Refusing these "untenable" conditions will bring pain to the users and the librarians, who must deal with declining collections and frustrated clients.  But like those who fought the untenable labor conditions of manufacturing, farming, and transportation, we are beginning to see that uniting our efforts against the unsustainable practices of those who control the the capital of scholarly communication will stabilize the delicate balance of powers and enable the progress of knowledge.

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