Harvard Joins the Open Access Revolt

The publishers of research journals don’t get much attention because their products are not very exciting.  Mentions of Science or Nature do not exactly quicken the pulse.  But that doesn’t mean that the publishers of academic journals aren’t as predatory and profiteering as any Fortune 500 bank or oil company. 

It now appears that the major universities that generate so much of the world’s research (only to buy it back from publishers at huge mark-ups) could be getting ready to fight back.  Harvard University is publicly urging its faculty members to avoid publishing in journals that require paid access, and to publish instead in open access journals.  Open access literature can be defined as works that are digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

As the Guardian (UK) reports, the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council has sent a memo to 2,100 professors and researchers informing them that “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.”

The memo continued:

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.

Harvard’s announcement is expected to encourage many other research libraries to accelerate the migration to open access alternatives.  It’s a move that may take time, but is financially inescapable.  The average university library now pays about 65% of its budget for research journals, and more than half of that goes to the three major publishers, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

Academic outrage at journal prices is not confined to university administrators.  When Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers wrote a critical piece about commercial publishers on his blog in January 2012, it ignited a viral boycott-protest that has now collected more than 11,500 signatures at the website The Cost of Knowledge.  The boycotters promise to have nothing to do with contributing to, peer reviewing, or buying Elsevier journals.  The boycott objects to subscription prices, bundling practices (selling unwanted journal subscriptions in bundles with must-have journals), and Elsevier’s advocacy for new copyright laws that would restrict access to knowledge (e.g., PIPA and SOPA). 

Guardian columnist George Monbiot has said that even Rupert Murdoch is not as predatory as the leading journal publishers:  “Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.”

He notes that Elsievier’s operating profit margin was 36% in 2011, an astronomical sum made possible by the firm’s stranglehold on the market.  Elsevier, Springer and Wiley now own the publications that run 42% of all journal articles.

As for publishers’ claims that production and distribution are costly enterprises, Monbiot cites an analysis by Deutsche Bank:  “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn't be available.”  Monbiot adds:  “Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more. What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolizing a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.”

There has been some modest good news. The National Institutes of Health in the US requires all research financed by the government by put in an open access archive within one year of publication in a commercial journal.  But publishers have been trying to roll back this requirement – and in other nations, such as the UK, government research bodies have been unwilling to take any corrective steps. 

Now that Harvard has checked in on open access, the next step will be for research universities to collaborate more actively on a long-term, structural solution that lets them bypass commercial journals entirely or at least bring them to heel.  One appealing idea, proposed by Björn Brembs of Freie Universität in Berlin, would create a single global archive of academic literature and data that would be overseen by an independent body. 

The Directory of Open Access Journals now tabulates more than 7,700 open access journals, and growing.  It's time to give this self-evident commons-based solution a big new push.  That should be easier now that Harvard is in the game.