Just Saying No to For-Profit Academic Publishers

| September 26, 2012

The scholarly communication system is full of tension these days: libraries stretch budgets to meet the hugely increasing cost of journal subscriptions, academic publishers insist upon the added value of their product opposed to open-access models, and researchers feel pressure to publish in more prestigious, high-impact (and often more costly) journals to meet tenure and promotion requirements. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published two articles that give (almost) the same advice to researchers and librarians: just say no. Granted, publishers aren’t some nefarious stranger offering you candy. But scholarly communication is a wild and woolly topic, so let’s try to break this down and see just what we should say no to, and why.

First, the advice to scholars. This comes from Hugh Gusterson, former MIT and now George Mason professor of anthropology, in his op-ed piece “Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No.” In the light of a scholarly communication system in which journals are increasingly controlled by for-profit (and highly profitable) goliaths like Elsevier, Gusterson argues that scholars should charge said publishers for the time and expertise they put into refereeing articles. He says that it used to make sense to referee articles when they were being published by nonprofit university presses who were part of a general scholarly communication system in which they contributed vetted published work while the scholar’s own university paid them. Yet the large profits of the likes of Elsevier have had researchers up in arms this year, and Gusterson is among the resistance.

Joining them in speaking out against unsustainable publisher practices are librarians like Jenica P. Rogers, Director of Libraries at SUNY Potsdam. Rogers breaks an unspoken rule of keeping negotiations with journals behind closed doors and came out with a public call to action for fellow librarians who cannot afford rising costs of some journal package subscriptions to just walk away from these publishers. For Rogers, it was the American Chemical Society, but for librarians at other small institutions, it might be another package that just does not make sense anymore. Rogers’ initial call to action was followed by a Chronicle article today. The main complaint is that the American Chemical Society’s pricing model  is simply too expensive for smaller institutions like SUNY Potsdam, whose chemistry department needs the resources but is not large enough to warrant spending more than 10% of the library’s entire acquisitions budget on just this package.

These articles are representative of general unrest in the scholarly communication system, and all I can say is kudos to both Rogers and Gusterson for speaking up. Even though continuing the ACS subscription would have cost  more than all the music databases combined that support their conservatory, Rogers still called this a tough decision. Yet she points out in her blog that someone needs to take that first step, and sometimes that means you:

Librarians are often disinclined to be first to try something – we’d often rather be second, after someone else has found the hidden pitfalls. So here I am, saying that we were willing to be the first to be loud, and to provide you with a public example of what is possible. Our chemistry faculty were willing to follow that lead, and I’m grateful to them for it. I’ll report back on what we learn.

More open discussion of strategies and decisions like Rogers’ and Gusterson’s would only help us learn the best way to move forward and remake the scholarly communication system to better serve its constituents. So let’s keep this conversation going.