20 years of cowardice: the pathetic response of American universities to the crisis in scholarly publishing

When Harvard University says it can not afford something, people notice. So it was last month when a faculty committee examining the future of the university’s libraries declared that the continued growth of journal subscription fees was unsustainable, even for them. The accompanying calls for faculty action are being hailed as a major challenge to the traditional publishers of scholarly journals.

Would that it were so. Rather than being a watershed event in the movement to reform scholarly publishing, the tepidness of the committee’s recommendations, and the silence of the university’s administration, are just the latest manifestation of the toothless response of American universities to the “serials crisis” that has plagued libraries for decades.

Had the leaders major research universities attacked this issue head on when the deep economic flaws in system became apparent, or if they’d showed even an ounce of spine in the ensuing twenty or so years, the subscription-based model that is the root of the problem would have long ago been eliminated. The solutions have always been clear. Universities should have stopped paying for subscriptions, forcing publishers to adopt alternative economic models. And they should have started to reshape the criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure, so that current and aspiring faculty did not feel compelled to publish in journals that were bankrupting the system. But they did neither, choosing instead to let the problem fester. And even as cries from the library community intensify, our universities continue to shovel billions of dollars a year to publishers while they repeatedly fail to take the simple steps that could fix the problem overnight.

The roots of the serials crisis 

Virtually all of the problems in scholarly publishing stem from the simple act, repeated millions of times a year, of a scholar signing over copyright in their work to the journal in which their work is to appear. When they do this they hand publishers a weapon that enables them to extract almost unlimited amounts of money from libraries at the same research institutions that produced the work in the first place.

The problem arises because research libraries are charged with obtaining for scholars at their institution access to the entire scholarly output of their colleagues. Not just the most important stuff. Not just the most interesting stuff. Not just the most affordable stuff. ALL OF IT. And publishers know this. So they raise prices on their existing journals. And they launch new titles. And then they raise their prices.

What can libraries do? They have to subscribe to these journals. Their clientele wants them – indeed, they need them to do their work. They can’t cancel their subscription to Journal X in favor of the cheaper Journal Y, because the contents of X are only available in X. Every publisher is a monopoly selling an essential commodity. No wonder things have gotten out of control.

And out of control they are. Expenditures on scholarly journals at American research libraries quadrupled from 1986 to 2005, increasing at over three times the rate of inflation. This despite a massive reduction in costs due to a major shift towards electronic dissemination. These rates of growth continue nearly unabated, even in a terrible economy. (For those interested in more details, I point you to SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who tracks journal pricing and revenues).

The opportunity universities missed

Just as the serials crisis was hitting its stride in the mid-1990′s, fate handed universities an out – the internet. In the early 1990′s access to the scholarly literature almost always occurred via print journals. By the end of the decade, virtually all scholarly journals were publishing online.

This radical transformation in how scholarly works were disseminated should have been accompanied by a corresponding radical shift in the economics of journal publishing. But it barely made a dent. Publishers, who were now primarily shipping electrons instead of ink on paper, kept raising their subscription prices as if nothing had happened. And universities let them get away with it.

By failing to show even a hint of creativity or initiative in seizing the opportunity presented by the internet to reshape the system of scholarly communication in a productive way, the leaders of American universities condemned themselves to 15 more years (and counting) of rising costs, and decreasing value. Their inaction also cost them the chance to reclaim the primary role they once held (through their university presses) in communicating the output of their scholars.

But while universities did next to nothing to fix scholarly publishing, others leapt into the fray. A new economic model, which came to be known as “open access“, emerged as an alternative to the subscription journals. Under open access the costs of publishing would be bourn up front by research sponsors, with the finished product freely available to all. In addition to the obvious good greatly expanding the reach of the scholarly literature, open access was largely free of the economic inefficiencies that created the serials crisis in the first place, and enjoyed very strong support from university libraries across the country. But despite its manifold advantages, universities as a whole did little to help it succeed.

The unholy alliance between journals and universities

The biggest obstacle to the rise of open access journals was (and to a large extent still is) the major role that journal titles play in how universities evaluate candidates for jobs and promotions. In most academic disciplines, careers are built by publishing papers in prestigious journals – those that are the most selective, and therefore have the most cache. Scholars rising through the ranks of graduate school, the job market, assistant professorships and tenure face a nearly contant barrage of messages telling them that they have to publish in the best journals if they want to succeed at the next step. Never mind that it is far less true than people believe. That people believe it is all that matters.

Almost everyone I know thinks that simply looking at journal titles is a stupid way to decide who is or is not a good researcher, and yet it remains. There are many reasons why this system persists, but the most important is that universities like it. Administrators love having something like an objective standard that can be applied to all of the candidates for a job, promotion, etc… that might allow them to compare not only candidates for one job to each other, but all candidates for any honor across the university. This is perhaps why no university that I know of has taken a forceful stand against the use of journal titles as a major factor in hiring and promotion decisions. And it is, I believe, a major reason why they are unwilling to cut off the flow of money to these journals.

It’s never too late

Although their record is pretty bad, universities could still play a major role in making scholarly publishing work better – and save themselves money in the process – with two simple actions:

  • Stop the flow of money to subscription journals. Universities should not renew ANY subscriptions. They should, instead, approach them with a new deal – they’ll maintain payments at current levels for 3 more years if the journal(s) commit to being fully open access at the end of that time.
  • Introduce – and heavily promote – new criteria for hiring and promotion that actively discourage the use of journal titles in evaluating candidates.

These ideas are not new. Indeed, the basic outlines appear in a fantastic essay from the Association of Research Librarians published in March 1998, describing the serials crisis and their solutions to fix it:

The question inevitably asked is, “Who goes first?” Which major universities and which scholarly societies have the will, confidence, and financial resources to get the process started?

Our answer is simple and to the point. It is time for the presidents of the nation’s major research universities to fish or cut bait. Collectively, they have both opportunity and motive—and, in the Association of American Universities, they have an organization with the capacity to convene the necessary negotiations.

It’s amazing that essentially nobody took them up on the challenge the first time. Let’s hope it doesn’t take  another 15 years.

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17 Comments

  1. Posted May 1, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Michael:
    Libraries do NOT have to subscribe to journals. That is paper-era thinking. For an alternative, check my blog. In particular, check out this post:
    http://scitechsociety.blogspot.com/2012/04/annealing-library.html

    This would make a lot of money available for Open Access. I hope you support the idea.
    –Eric.

  2. Posted May 1, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Michael:
    You are right about the cowardice of academia in this respect. However, I disagree that libraries must buy journal subscriptions. That is paper-era thinking. For an alternative that would make a lot of money available for open access, check out a recent blog post of mine:
    http://scitechsociety.blogspot.com/2012/04/annealing-library.html
    (There are several other posts that elaborate on this.) I hope you support this.
    –Eric.

  3. Posted May 1, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I published in an open access journal for the first time last week. I don’t know if this is an exception, but was surprised at the cost – which come out of our lab expenses. It is hard to justify this AND our institute paying exorbitant fees. I 100% agree that OA is the way to go, but it’s a tough sell as things stand.

  4. Posted May 1, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Greetings Michael,
    Very clearly put.
    It’s even worse over here (UK and rest of Europe). Which UK university has even made a squeak (?Southampton). The rest couldn’t care.
    Where do library subscriptions come from?
    * the taxpayer
    * student fees
    * topslicing grants from elsewhere
    *endowments

    In none of these case is it a justifiable use of money and I suspect some don’t realise how bad it is and how irresponsible the management is. As long as universities continue to get this money “for free” then there is little pressure.

    I’d suggest also that in your bargain – which I like – that after 3 years the disciplines be asked to foot the bill, rather than the library. In this way there would be a real market between buying chemicals and instruments and paying for journals.

    I think the reality is that the imaginative things in science (PLoS, eLife, UK/PMC and the growing number of bottom-up initiatives) will force people to change their way of thinking.

    Or we are doomed to Planck’s law of scientific progress – “one funeral at a time”.

  5. JJ
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Michael, I agree that open access should be the way to go, but the reality is that you still need papers like Nature, Science or Cell to get a faculty position. It is going to be very difficult to change that. I support Open Access and that is the reason I have published two papers in open access journals (PLoS One and BMC Microbiology). However, I am looking for a postdoc position and several people told me that these two publications are going to make things more difficult for me because some PIs consider open access publications like “non-prestigious” journals. I was preparing another paper for PLoS One, but I am thinking in sending the paper to a “regular” journal.

  6. Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Those who object based on cost are not seeing this clearly. As a scientific community, we are already paying those costs (and much more) in the form of overhead on our grants that pay for library services. If we stopped paying for those, we would have all the money needed for author fees, plus we’d have a lot of money left over that is now going into the pockets of the shareholders of publishing companies. In fact, the scientific community is already paying all of the costs of publication and doing all of the work to write and review these articles, then we agree to sign over our copyright to the journals, and then agree to limit access to the subset of people who pay exorbitant fees to see our work in what amounts to a conspiracy with the journals to boost their fees. The taxpayers should revolt about this, since they must pay large fees to see the results of the research that they have already paid to have done. It seems pathetic to me as well that nothing but inertia, stodginess, and cultural and bureaucratic limitations prevent this system from being much more effective and efficient.

  7. Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    There is another way to put pressure toward reforming this system. That would be for Congress to represent the taxpayers properly by simply requiring that all research done with public funds be published in venues available for free to the public. Such venues are widely available. Sadly, Congress has been going the other way, propping up the journal-publishing industry by preventing NIH from encouraging open access publishing.

  8. Posted May 1, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Excellent summation of a serious issue; I cringe a little everytime I have to sign a copyright release form and perhaps it is time we all re-evaluate this. In essense the publishers are selling us back our own work; no where else would this be tolerated!

  9. Posted May 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post, holmes.

  10. Posted May 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post! You have hit the mark and with the necessary emphasis. It is cowardice, indeed, but scientists, not librarians, are to blame. Besides, open access is a new concept and has a long way to go in order to establish itself as the main model. I am associate editor of a open content journal, which is struggling with low impact factors and the production costs (which are considerable, due to the fact that you must pay for human resources, infrastructure, etc.) Therefore, who pays for these costs, if access is free? Only with page charges (in my journal, they amount to US$ 1,500 per paper).

  11. GM
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    JJ
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink
    Michael, I agree that open access should be the way to go, but the reality is that you still need papers like Nature, Science or Cell to get a faculty position. It is going to be very difficult to change that.

    There is no reason why we can’t have prestigious journals that are also open access. PLoS Biology is already much more prestigious than PLoS ONE. What makes the prestigious journals prestigious is their selectivity and their (supposedly) much higher peer review standards. Nothing prevents them from retaining that selectivity while making articles freely available to everyone, moving the costs of publishing to the authors and operating at a minimal profit, or, preferably, as non-profits (nobody has been able to provide a satisfactory explanation why scientific journals, whose mission should be to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge, should be making profit to begin with, let alone the kind of absurd profit margins publishers are enjoying now; because it makes no sense).

    And we can definitely have a separate debate about the utility of having glamour mags, it is a complicated issues with valid arguments for both the need for them and for the view that they do more harm than good. But it is still a separate issue from open access.

  12. Posted May 2, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    “Introduce – and heavily promote – new criteria for hiring and promotion that actively discourage the use of journal titles in evaluating candidates.”

    Stanford Chemistry Department leads the way: http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/2012/04/citation-against-citations.html

  13. Binay Panda
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Michael, Excellent post. I have been following your post for quite some time now and am championing the cause of Open Access in India. We are a very new lab and have a policy to publish the findings of the lab only in OA journals. I, of course, am a signatory in the ‘The Cost of Knowledge’ site as well. As far as I know, we are the only group in India who has a lab policy to publish ONLY in OA journals. We also try selling the idea to others. We understand that there are flaws in the current OA publishing system but it’s best out there until it evolves into a much better system.

    There is no other place where OA is more needed than in India. We have 200million (yes, 200 million) young aspirants who desperately need access to literature, be it in science or humanities. And putting information out in the open is the only way to go. But I am already facing questions like, the best manuscripts are published in Nature, Science and Cell and the rest goes elsewhere. Folks who sit in grant committees believe this. Believe me or not, many grant applications ask for publications with more than a certain IF. It’s ludicrous how scientists, who are supposed to have more than average IQ, buy this stupid idea of IF. Additionally, the visiting faculties from the US, Europe and Japan endorsing this view in front of our establishment is not helping our cause. It might not be the case with you at Berkeley but it is the case with majority of us. How do we deal with this? Any help from you will be appreciated.

    I think the model of OA need a bit tweaking as well to make sure that it not only keeps the commercial publisher model out of the realm of science but also the un-necessary bureaucratic, opaque, currently-practiced peer-review system completely out as well. I shall be glad to hear everyone’s comments.

    Binay

  14. Dale Copps
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    As Library Manager for a small R&D company, I gradually weaned my engineers from costly journal subscriptions during the early 00′s in favor of free Tables of Contents delivered to their emailboxes. Purchasing just those articles of interest to them (always digitally) saves us a large portion of our budget.

    Prestigious journals (Nature, etc.) will continue to be published not only because they offer an easy benchmark for evaluating faculty performance, but because they offer a RELIABLE benchmark for doing so. We no longer have to subscribe to them, however. Their TOCs (with abstracts) are freely and conveniently available and I cannot believe even a large university would spend more obtaining single articles of interest to their researchers than they now do supporting full collections every year.

  15. Peter Griffiths
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    What most people appear to forget is that it costs at least $1500 per paper to publish on an open access basis ($5K in Nature). Add in the indirect costs (50% or more) and that drives the cost to well over $2000. Thus even if a research group only publishes 4 papers a year, it adds about $10K to their publications budget at a time when grants are getting harder and harder to get. Journals published by professional societies are usually quite prestigious (even if not up to the reputation of Science or Nature) and subscriptions are generally significantly cheaper. Furthermore the societies use the income from the journal for the benefit of their members arher than their stock holders. I strongly believe that we should publish in the journals of professional societies rather than journals published by the for-profit publishing houses.
    Peter Griffiths, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho.

  16. GM
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Peter Griffiths
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink
    What most people appear to forget is that it costs at least $1500 per paper to publish on an open access basis ($5K in Nature). Add in the indirect costs (50% or more) and that drives the cost to well over $2000. Thus even if a research group only publishes 4 papers a year, it adds about $10K to their publications budget at a time when grants are getting harder and harder to get. Journals published by professional societies are usually quite prestigious (even if not up to the reputation of Science or Nature) and subscriptions are generally significantly cheaper. Furthermore the societies use the income from the journal for the benefit of their members arher than their stock holders. I strongly believe that we should publish in the journals of professional societies rather than journals published by the for-profit publishing houses.

    Those are not insignificant costs, that’s true, however if tally up the total cost of the average biology paper, 2000 dollars will amount to 2% of it at most, probably even less. That’s not true in the humanities, or in math, but it is also true that we already have things like per-page charges, charges for color figures, etc. in non-open access journals, and that in those fields there either aren’t that many figures or the authors do the typesetting themselves so the cost should be lower anyway. Also, I have yet to see a breakdown of what actually goes into the cost of an article (if someone can point to some source with that information, please do so), so I naturally have a serious suspicion that it can be cut by a lot.

  17. Zachary Bos
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Is there anything like a template for the changes proposed — the kind of document which could, with a very few changes to address institutional differences, be submitted to the administration at this or that university?

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