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)

Absurd "academic publishing racket" is past its sell-by date

In the Observer, John Naughton unloads both barrels on the "academic publishing racket" in which giant multinational publishers get free, state-subsidized research to publish, use free, state-subsidized labor for peer-review, require assignments of the scholars' copyrights as a condition of publication, then charge astounding sums to the scientists and academics they are "serving" for the right to read the work they're all engaged in producing.

But it's not just the exorbitant subscriptions that stink; it's the intrinsic absurdity of what's involved in the academic publishing racket. Most publishers, after all, have at least to pay for the content they publish. But not Elsevier, Springer et al. Their content is provided free by researchers, most of whose salaries are paid by you and me.

The peer reviewing that ensures quality in these publications is likewise provided gratis by you and me, because the researchers who do it are paid from public money. (One estimate puts the value of UK unpaid peer reviewing at a staggering £165m.) And then the publishers not only assert copyright claims on the content they have acquired for nothing, but charge publicly funded universities monopoly prices to get access to it.

The most astonishing thing about this is not so much that it goes on, but that people have put up with it for so long. Talk to university librarians about extortionist journal subscriptions and mostly all you will get is a pained shrug. The librarians know it's a racket, but they feel powerless to act because if they refused to pay the monopoly rents then their academics – who, after all, are under the cosh of publish-or-perish mandates – would react furiously (and vituperatively).

Which is why the recent initiative by a Cambridge academic, Tim Gowers, is so interesting and important. Professor Gowers is a recipient of the Fields medal, which is the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize, so they don't come more eminent than him. In a memorable blogpost, Gowers announced that henceforth he would not be submitting articles to Elsevier's journals and that he would also be refusing to peer-review articles for them. His post struck a nerve, attracting thousands of readers and commenters and stimulating one of them to set up a campaigning website, The Cost of Knowledge, which enables academics to register their objections to Elsevier. To date, more than 9,000 have done so.

Here's an interesting wrinkle I've encountered in a few places. Many scholars sign work-made-for-hire deals with the universities that employ them. That means that the copyright for the work they produce on the job is vested with their employers -- the universities -- and not the scholars themselves. Yet these scholars routinely enter into publishing contracts with the big journals in which they assign the copyright -- which isn't theirs to bargain with -- to the journals. This means that in a large plurality of cases, the big journals are in violation of the universities' copyright. Technically, the universities could sue the journals for titanic fortunes. Thanks to the "strict liability" standard in copyright, the fact that the journals believed that they had secured the copyright from the correct party is not an effective defense, though technically the journals could try to recoup from the scholars, who by and large don't have a net worth approaching one percent of the liability the publishers face.

Of course, to pursue this line, you'd have to confront the fact that academics are sharecroppers to their employers, and that the works they've published, posted to their websites, licensed for anthologies, etc, aren't theirs, which would have a lot of fallout beyond mere academic publishing circles. But it's still provocative to consider the possibility that the journals (and their enormous, conlgomerated parent companies) might owe something like 40 years' worth of the entire planet's GDP to a bunch of cash-strapped universities.

Academic publishing doesn't add up

Provocative proposal to force scholarly publishers to respect open-access wishes of their unpaid contributors

On Freedom to Tinker, Andrew Appel has been expertly analyzing the copyright policies of several technical academic journals published by the likes of ACM and the IEEE. The scholars who contribute to these journals are calling for a change in their way of doing business, so that article authors get to retain their copyright. Appel lays out a compelling economic argument for scholars refusing to assign their copyrights to journals. In today's installment, Appel discusses a shift in ACM's publishing policy that ends the practice of authors modifying their contracts to reflect their preferences on terms of publishing; now ACM's office of Copyright and Permissions states that "ACM does not accept copyright Addenda that exceed the liberal rights retained by authors under ACM’s Copyright Policy and the exclusive grant of copyright to ACM as publisher."

Appel points out that in one area of academic publishing, conference proceedings, scholars hold the whip hand. That's because, once papers have been accepted for presentation at a conference, and the program fixed, the authors could collectively refuse to sign the default contract. This would require the publisher to either modify its policy to reflect the wishes of the (unpaid) contributors who make its conferences possible, or to scrap the entire bill and start over reviewing papers, with short time.

Suppose almost all the authors of the 40 accepted papers were to write the same modification into their copyright contract? The publisher could reject all those papers, but there’s a serious time constraint: the conference volume has to appear, and it has to appear NOW, with a short deadline. If the volume appears but missing three-fourths of its papers, then that conference is effectively dead, and may never recover in future years.

It’s not like a journal, where the publisher can just publish some other papers instead. The papers are accepted all at once by a program committee whose members are not employees of the publisher, who are not under a contractual obligation to the publisher, and who may sympathize more with the authors’ views about copyright than with the publisher’s. The publisher cannot simply substitute other papers.

This is a game of chicken that the publisher cannot win. If the authors feel strongly and get their gumption together, they will prevail. The best course for publishers is to avoid playing this game of chicken, by adjusting their copyright contracts to fit the progress of open-access policies in the 21st century. I believe that the good nonprofits (such as ACM and IEEE) are heading in this direction, and Usenix is already there.

Contract hacking and community organizing

Elsevier withdraws support from Research Works Act, bill collapses

Science publishing giant Elsevier has pulled its support from the Research Works Act, a bill that would have restricted the ability of scientists doing government-funded work to place their papers with open access journals. The action follows a scholarly and scientific boycott of Elsevier, and has led to the collapse of the bill.

I believed from the start that Elsevier would be vulnerable to a boycott threat. The Research Works Act was a desperate bid to eliminate competition arising from the scientists and scholars who supply Elsevier with an endless stream of free work that Elsevier then charges high fees to access, generally charging the institutions whose scientists produced the work to begin with. The question isn't whether Elsevier deserves to make money, or makes too much money: the question (for institutions, scholars and scientists) is whether paying Elsevier is the best way to do science and scholarship. Elsevier isn't a charity, and there's no reason to expect institutions to pay for its journals if they can get better science and scholarship for less through the open access movement.

The increasing trend to open access is fueled by this dynamic, and it's only going to get more pronounced as time goes by. Elsevier is vulnerable, and their overreaching legal proposal just accelerated the pace at which scholars and scientists turned to open access.

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.

Cooperation and collaboration are critical because different kinds of journals in different fields have different economics and models. Inflexible mandates that do not take those differences into account and do not involve the publisher in decision making can undermine the peer-reviewed journals that serve an essential purpose in the research community. Therefore, while withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.


Open medical knowledge saves lives: Oppose H.R. 3699

Here's a terrific article by Gilles Frydman at e-patients.net advocating for opposition to H.R. 3699, aka The Research Works Act (RWA). The bill before Congress would seriously impede "the ability of patients and caregivers, researchers, physicians and healthcare professionals to access and use critical health-related information in a timely manner." (@timoreilly via @epatientdave)

Congress wants to limit open access publishing for the US government's $28B/year subsidized research

A new bill in Congress, H.R. 3699 ("To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector"), creates a regulation that make it hard-to-impossible to publish open access scholarly journals. These are journals that are paid for directly by researchers, who pay a fee that helps pay for peer review, and are then made available free of charge to all comers. They don't make a profit the way that the incumbent commercial journals do, but they have surpassed many of the old journals for quality and "impact factor" (how often articles are cited in other articles) and are used by scholars and institutions who believe them to be better for contemporary science and scholarship than the 18th-century model of the old commercial journals.

Rather than allowing an open marketplace to decide which model is best, Congress -- including Rep Darrell Issa, who has taken a strong stand for open networks in his opposition to SOPA -- is putting its thumb fist on the scales to support the incumbent closed journals.

All of this makes his support for a new bill, the Research Works Act, incomprehensible. That bill would prohibit all federal agencies from putting any privately published articles into an online database, even -- and this is the kicker -- those articles based on research funded by the public if they have received "any value-added contribution, including peer review or editing" from a private publisher. This is a direct attack on the National Institutes of Health's PubMed Central, the massive free online repository of articles resulting from research funded with NIH dollars. Similar bills have been introduced twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and have failed both times. (Letters from universities and libraries opposing the 2009 bill can be found here.)

Unsurprisingly, the bill is supported by the Association of American Publishers, a trade group that has long had issue with NIH's public-access policy, which requires authors who receive any NIH funding to contribute their work to PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. As Paul Courant, the University of Michigan Librarian wrote of the 2008 iteration of the bill, the AAP's claim that the "Government does not fund peer-reviewed journal articles -- publishers do" is simply "not true."

Why Is Open-Internet Champion Darrell Issa Supporting an Attack on Open Science?

Scholarly Societies: It's time to abandon the AAP over The Research Works Act

Royal Society opens archive, kills productivity

60,000 peer-reviewed papers, including the first peer-reviewed scientific research journal in the world, are now available free online. The Royal Society has opened its historical archives to the public. Among the cool stuff you'll find here: Issac Newton's first published research paper and Ben Franklin's write-up about that famous kite experiment. Good luck getting anything accomplished today. Or ever again.