August 24, 2012

Harvard Promotes Open-Access Journals For Researchers And Students Alike

In the quiet, restrained world of research libraries, any controversies that arise are, for the most part, cordial and largely academic. So some within the industry may have been understandably surprised by the widespread attention paid when, in April, Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council sent a letter to the faculty concerning what it alleged was a crisis with its scholarly journal subscriptions.

The letter reported an “untenable situation facing the Harvard Library” in which “many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.” The letter revealed that Harvard is paying $3.75 million annually in journal subscriptions and that they make up “10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires.” A few of the journals, it says, cost upward of $40,000 a year–each. “Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices.” Its conclusion: “Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained.” To underscore the weight of what Harvard had just done by releasing this letter, one blogger headlined his post, “The wealthiest university on Earth can’t afford its academic journal subscriptions.”

Though the letter’s short-term impact was to inform the non-academic world of the growing tension between research libraries and journal publishers, many in the industry say its long-term effect lies in its list of recommendations for how to ameliorate the situation. Harvard implores its top researchers to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals” and to “consider resigning” from the editorial boards of journals that don’t provide open-access offerings. Because an open-access journal allows anyone to easily and without cost read any of its published material, a large-scale migration to the platform would ease many of the financial burdens posed by subscription journals.

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