Harvard Library to faculty: we're going broke unless you go open access

Henry sez, "Harvard Library's Faculty Advisory Council is telling faculty that it's financially 'untenable' for the university to keep on paying extortionate access fees for academic journals. It's suggesting that faculty make their research publicly available, switch to publishing in open access journals and consider resigning from the boards of journals that don't allow open access."

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. 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. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.

Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing (Thanks, Henry!)

(Image: HBS Library, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wagnertc's photostream)


  1. I can only read this as Harvard trying to do a Good Thing for other schools. Harvard has more money than God, so clearly they can buy periodicals if they want. However, if Harvard starts to change the periodical paradigm, schools with less money will benefit.


    1. Harvard does have more money than God, but as I pointed out to the many faculty who contacted me when, in 2005-6, I was Head of Collections for their Countway Library (which covered medicine, dentistry, public health, etc.), not all that much of it flowed to the libraries. It’s a matter of priorities. Even so, many of the price rises were extortionate and unreasonable, in my opinion. How can journals justify increases averaging 8% and up every year? That’s not to mention the odd title that tried to double its price! No library’s budget rises like this. The major academic publishers, especially in the sciences, are obscenely profitable, more so than many major corporations. Some of agreements publishers and vendors wanted you to dignity were also utterly absurd. I flat-out refused to buy one product because if you stopped subscribing, you lost access to all the years of material you had purchased! For over $50,000 a year for a single product (and one which was not that unique overall), I expect archiving. Instead, I stuck to the print in that case, and the faculty supported me, once I explained. A few even called the publisher to complain.

      1. i work for a major social science org with a huge publishing wing, and boy, let me tell ya how far into the earth our heels are dug. we’re fighting congress and the obama administration to keep our profits, while it seems like what they want is to get the public meaningful access to studies that were, uhh, publicly funded. kind of amazed our kind haven’t been slammed in the media yet, but there must be bigger fish to fry. meanwhile, we protect our turf, roll along in an inefficient bureaucracy, and never consider that a swipe at our profits maybe should be a call for some organizational soul-searching…

        whadda I know…i’m mid-level.

  2. “COST” seems to be the over-reaching factor in most cutbacks and reductions in small and large libraries in America these days. My old university library has almost completely done away with library staff and instead has installed a sterile “book retrieval system” – meaning curious students cannot casually browse book shelves and discover new books for themselves. Plus of course, local city libraries and elementary school libraries are drying up because of priority-driven budget cutbacks. An awful lot of material and information (in the form of books) is now falling through the cracks into oblivion. Simply put, books cost too much.

    1. Do you know if its the actual cost of the books themselves, or a lack of funding? My understanding (supremely limited though it is) is that the primary issue has been funding _cuts_, not increasing costs. Could be wrong….

      1. the cuts are in part related to increasing costs, but that is a much more complicated story that is specific to harvard. the problem that is the focus of this story — the rip-off that is academic publishing — is endemic to the entire world of higher education and, in a time when we have the ability and expectation to freely access more information than ever before, it threatens to severely LIMIT access to information based on predatory pricing. which is insane. $3 or $4 million might not seem like a lot to the harvard library system (though it actually is), imagine a small state institution trying to deal with these publishing congolemerates — its not pretty.

          1. As soon as you shift to ebooks, you find that interlibrary loans becomes more difficult. The big aggregators, such as Overdrive, try to restrict ILL where possible; moreover, database access makes it equally hard to loan journal material. Open-access is definitely a good thing (would introduce competition and drive down the rent-seeking behaviour of the large publishers), but also universities need to aggregate demand (as well as supply). Eg – if all 40+ Australian university libraries acted as a consortium, they could get access more cheaply I believe. The one caveat is that scholarly journals are pretty much ‘locked up’ and can’t be substituted for one another so consortia are less capable of making a difference. NEvertheless, they would achieve a degree of power in the market more equal to that of the publishers and could, as a consortium, also start changing the foolish academic publishing system en masse – read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s excellent Planned Obsolescence for some interesting thoughts on this last point.

          2.  Many electronic journals either prohibit interlibrary loans or require libraries to do this: one, print out article, hoping it will look crappy. Two, scan article, to make it crappier. Three send scan.

            At my library, we end up buying articles because the library that would love to simply send us a PDF is prohibited (even if they spend tens of thousands on the subscription). Also, libraries have to pay the publisher a copyright fee if they ask for more than five articles from any single journal published in the past five years. The fee is usually $30-$50 per article. That’s for the right to ask for a copy that another library will actually supply.

            How can “let another library buy it for us” be any kind of long-term solution to a problem that is so fixable?

        1. Gotcha. Thanks all for the intelligent replies. I am somewhat aware of the problems w/academic publishing and e-books w/libraries, on an amateur level. I was more curious about if it was literally the cost of books….but I guess it is the cost of e-books! Well, and journals.

          Has anyone ever done, say, a library entirely of e-books. Where you go to the library, check out a reader, and check out rights on some e-books for some X period of time?

          1.  No. This is largely impossible at this time — not because of any technical hurdles, but because of the draconian and heavy-handed application of copyright law and the sublimation of the first-sale doctrine used by ebook publishers. It would take too much space to get into, but basically when a library buys a book, it owns that book, and get lend it as it likes. When that same library buys that same book in ebook form, it almost always has to license it. This allows publishers to retain all distribution rights, which means they can do things like erase all content after a certain number of borrowers check it out. And this actually happens. This is to say nothing of crippling DRM issues, or instances where publishers simply delete ebooks after having licensed them to libraries with little to no warning, creating holes in collections. Again, the great irony is that, absent the open access movement, the technology that should be leading to a revolution in access to information is being used to do the exact opposite. It’s obscene.

          2. Cushing Academy (a prep school in MA) moved to an all-digital library recently.  There are some libraries that circulate e-readers — Buffy Hamilton, a librarian at a public high school, is the highest-profile blogger about this, if you want more depth http://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/

            The thing is, it just doesn’t work very well.  The licensing terms, etc., on commercial ebooks are based around a consumer model, not an institutional/lending model.  So libraries encounter problems like:

            * You can’t purchase an ebook, and then let people read it on whichever reader happens to be available for loan right now.  The ebook is tied to the ereader.  You can generally load it on a couple of ereaders, but not all of them (not even if you’re using DRM to maintain a one-copy-one-user model).

            * This, in addition to being annoying, creates a lot of recordkeeping complexity.  You have to keep track of all the ebook/ereader mappings.  Your library catalog software is not going to support this for you, so basically it’s time to be the queen of spreadsheets, and of course your patrons aren’t going to be able to answer questions of ebook availability on their own using your catalog.

            * The terms of service on ebooks and ereaders can be murky on things that matter to libraries (again, since they’re designed for a single-user, direct-to-consumer use case).  A couple years ago when people were starting with Kindle lending in libraries, they were doing so in an acknowledged grey area of terms of service, and they got conflicting statements from Amazon reps about whether what they were doing was legal.  Since then Amazon seems to have shifted in the direction of library ereader lending being outside their terms; Barnes & Noble provides some actual support for library lending of Nooks (which is why Buffy’s library has shifted to them), but it still doesn’t provide a smooth library workflow for the reasons above.

  3. While the administration has been pilloried of late due to their cuts to library services during a time of relative financial glut (their endowment, worth well over $30 billion, grew by something like 15-20% last year), this is an issue in which they are firmly in the right. The world of academic and scientific journal publishing is outrageously corrupt, with journals who publish content funded by tax payers and by private institutions, then charge the public as well as those SAME institutions exorbitant fees to access materials that they ostensibly paid to create. This doesn’t even get into the bundling issue, which is a whole other arm of this racket. As much as the world of higher education is currently fraught with questionable financial practices, the world of academic and scientific publishing is worse by orders of magnitude.

  4. This is not just Harvard Library. They’re standing up for the little guys, like my impoverished state university.  This is a movement, allied with net neutrality, open source and anything else that seeks to stem the tide of profit-only values.  

    Check out the website below to begin to contemplate academia without these ripoff, self-serving publishers – esp. Elsevier, the worst of the bunch. 


    1. That’s absolutely right.  This issue is much larger and about the public’s right to know and have ready access to information.  Sure we need people and businesses who can facilitate that.  However, we don’t nee business and people, who attempt to structure pay-walls to information at exorbitant prices by virtue of the nearly monopolized nature of the market.

      What many don’t recognize is that if the publishers win this.  It may not be long before all your favorite websites are behind a pay-wall as well.

    1.  There are a number of sites that already cater to this need. Seek and you shall find.

  5. Problem is that open access journals push the costs back onto the authors.  An engineer at a company could have a publishable paper, but the boss could refuse to pay the fees. Would Einstein’s early papers have been published? I guess a lot of stuff will end up being posted on blogs, then disappear forever.

    1. Perhaps the faculty needs to be given a choice:

      “Either publish in open access journals, and pay the page fee out of your grant or pay the institutional subscription fee, out of your grant.”

      1. The libraries, at least in the sciences, never pay publication/page fees. These always come out of author’s grants. And you need not subscribe to a journal to publish in it. I don’t see how publishing in open access journals (in which the publication fees are typically enormous and paid by the authors – along the lines of $1500 for a single article) would save the libraries money. Much of the scientific literature is, for better or worse, published in journals which require a subscription (not all are for profit). So even if everyone published in open access journals, scientists would still need to access the older literature. To say “just don’t cite literature in for profit journals” just doesn’t make sense based on how science is currently conducted and published.

        1. If the researcher is  good at what he or she does, publishing research in a particular journal creates demand for that journal. Part of a editors job is to make sure that the “important papers” in a particular niche tend to get published in his journal; to develop a community of interest that needs the journal–, and is willing to pay the subscription fees. If these subscription fees are excessive, it bankrupts the library.

    2.  Let’s face the fact that a huge number of publications in many of these journals are of very marginal relevance  and, while they they pass peer-review for not containing any errors, their main purpose is to pad CVs of assistant professors and researchers.  On the entire collection of a journal, only very few articles are widely read, referenced and quoted.  By the imposed fee structure, the publisher make their money on the back of very few authors while thousand benefit from having their articles “published”, thus contributing to a vast waste of paper not to mention storage space.  If standards for publishing were raised and authors had to contribute more to the publication of their article, maybe it would reduce the amount of drivel being published

      1. I’m not sure it is really about standards; the reason that so much drivel is published is that we are all writing under compulsion. I agree that only a very few articles are widely read. But, you could also say that about any great library collection, that only a few of the books are widely read.

      2. The important thing is not they are either widely read or widely understood, but that they are available on that rare occasion that they may actually be vital to a particular line of inquiry.

        That’s just the way research works.  Its silly to suggest that you can identify the valuable material in advance.  Knowledge is simply to interconnected and some “irrelevant fact” published in some “obscure journal” may well just be the key piece of information that may unlock the next breakthrough that changes the world forever.

    3. “Problem is that open access journals push the costs back onto the authors.”

      And closed access journals share what with authors, exactly?

      1. Well when open access journals started, lots of folks figured they’d be able to write meaty review articles (which can be very important publications) to boost their CV and establish credibility in new areas.   But many organizations won’t pay those fees because it’s not work related, and if someone  is out of work or otherwise strapped for cash, they won’t pay for it themselves.  I could pull together a draft of a review article in a couple days and start batting it back and forth with a coauthor, but nobody is going to pay the publication fee for either of us.  We could try to get the fee waived, but we aren’t going to write the article first on the hope that it will happen.

          1. Not the same as getting published in a journal with a decent Impact Factor and listed in MedLine.

      2. Its not really the problem, since the cost of producing an electronic journal is much smaller than the cost of paying the large publishing houses.  Universities could use the savings to subsidize their own faculty and student publication costs with the savings.

        The bigger problem is that tenure, prestige, and historical knowledge locked in world journals are held under copyright of the publishers.

    4. Journals serve no purpose in the Internet age, they charge through the nose for papers that they didn’t write, it’s a total boondoggle.  Why shouldn’t papers be posted on blogs?  Make them freely accessible and searchable.  If the papers are useful they won’t disappear, and even if they do, they’ll be available permanently via archive.org and other sites.

  6. The piece that’s missing from open access publishing is generally peer review. I’d be perfectly happy to put all my work on arXiv but that would make it invisible to the tenure and promotion committee.

    1. There are a great many peer-reviewed OA journals.  See, e.g., http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/dean/peer_reviewed.htm

      1.  They’re also just as likely to be expensive. I’ve submitted things to Physical Review Special Topics, for instance. Their page charges to authors are prohibitively high for anything other than short paper on small ideas. What’s happened is that basically the same publication model has had the cost burden shifted from libraries to authors. There’s some justice in that, so long as the author has a grant. If you don’t, there’s not. Nevertheless, I don’t think PRST should go the way of Elsevier. It is a step away from evil, if not a large step. Sometimes I noodle around with ideas about how something like peer review could be added to arXiv. But that isn’t going to happen any time soon. At the end of the day, the system is supported by P&T committees depending on peer reviewed publications, preferably on paper, above all else. So long as that is where the rewards come from, nothing else changes. But the thing is, science didn’t always work this way. It is actually a pretty recent innovation.

  7. An by the way, Harvard is by far the richest educational institution in history. They’ve got a lot of damn gall complaining about anything at all. In my first academic job, I could read all the journals I could afford to personally subscribe to.

    1. Perhaps, but journals don’t charge individuals $45,000 per volume.  This fight is going on all over the world and entire disciplines are beginning to boycott the worst offenders, such as in mathematics, where Timothy Gower, Field Medalist is leading the way.  In two to three years, libraries and non-profits will begin to take over and for profit journals will be unable to find referees and editors, which presently mostly work for free.  Why should some CEO get a 6 figure salary, when they do nothing but manage a monopoly on the otherwise free exchange of ideas?

      Besides it makes no sense for taxpayers either, who first pay for the research to be published and then must pay private publishers again to read it.  No industry can expect to raise its prices 40-50% ever year and expect to retain its customers.  The reality is that the big publishing houses are rapidly pricing themselves out of the market.  Berkley, MIT, Caltech and other major research  universities are all reaching the same conclusion.

  8. I agree with most of this, although being in the humanities, I don’t quite feel the “taxpayer” part that we are hearing so much about. I have more than a year of full time work, unfunded with no health insurance, into my book, and I will be elated if an extortionist (peer reviewed) publisher will pick it up, pay me nothing, and charge $250 a copy to the 50 libraries who will buy it.

    But…I don’t get how just having Harvard profs change will change the whole industry. Does Harvard not understand that there are other researchers besides them?

    1. To think that Harvard is the only major research institution currently waging this fight would be incorrect. Again, this is a systemic problem that academic libraries all around the country are facing. Harvard is simply spearheading this fight. And again, it’s not as simple as “some journals are expensive.”  Read about these bundling practices, about the lack of enduring access to archived material as mentioned above. There are so many things about this industry that are shady.

  9. I’m thinking Harvard should put their heads together with other large and prestigious universities on this one; surely such an organisation would strike fear into the hearts of those gouging pricks in the journal racket…

  10. Down with ElSevier, Springer, and Wiley!  Journal costs were rising before the funding crisis at an average of 9%.  If you try to “break” your bundle, then these companies threaten to cut off access to ALL of your subscriptions (such as Nature and Science).  They have a monopoly on this information because they own the copyright.  The only way this will change is if the universities all revolt at once and their faculty deny them the articles and work product in the first place.

    1. How would it be possible for Elsevier, Springer, or Wiley to cut off an institution’s subscription to Nature or Science? The Nature Group is an arm of Macmillan and Science is a society journal (AAAS).

      For a debate taking place within academia, there sure is a lot of uninformed commentary.

  11. I’d just like to note, these problems illustrate the dangers inherent in relying on the Cloud in general: we can’t count on being able to publish or access info at a fair price – even info we created or paid to have created – unless we own and control the facilities that we rely on to publish and access it (or unless we make sure sufficient checks and balances from competing interests are built into the system).

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