Rock | Libraries | Hard Place

The High Cost of Journals and The Real Reason Access Is At Risk

By Jane Schmidt.

A falling Canadian dollar combined with increasing subscription prices set by publishers have created a perfect storm for library acquisition budgets. In order to cope with this storm, libraries will inevitably have to consider cancellations given the finite amount of funding available to them. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) recently issued a news release imploring publishers to consider “that there are limits on the public funds that research libraries—the main market for such journals—are willing and able to spend" and explained that alternative models for research dissemination and scholarly communication must be explored in order to address a “subscription-based publishing system [that] is simply unsustainable.”

Much ink has been spilled in bemoaning the scholarly publishing status quo - a world where the top five publishers reap profit margins upward of almost 40% - but yet very little progress has been made in the widespread adoption of Open Access (OA) publishing, nor in reining in profit driven publishers. Let’s explore why that may be the case.

Two steps forward, two steps back

Librarians have created systems where access to content that costs millions of dollars is made available to their communities seamlessly and at no cost at time of use (NB: make no mistake - students are paying dearly for that access in their tuition). Users have become accustomed to immediate access to content. When libraries are forced to pull back on that access via cancellations, naturally users feel as though they are being robbed of something they need in order to do their work.

Take, for example, the outcry that flowed from a CBC article about Memorial University Library in Newfoundland facing journal cancellations to avoid a deficit. The ensuing hyperbole was deafening. Similarly, when Brock University found itself in a budget crisis and was forced to pull the plug on its Wiley subscriptions (access to current year only - older content remained stable), the faculty response was to file a grievance for “the failure of the Administration to provide members with reasonable library resources.” To be clear - Brock researchers were only losing access to the current year of Wiley journals. Interlibrary loan and, in some cases, delayed access via aggregator databases (i.e. Proquest, EBSCO) would substitute. Solutions such as this can be an inconvenience to be sure, but don't represent a failure to provide access to crucial research - rather they involve a brief delay in access to one publisher’s titles. Memorial has since proceeded with 1700 cancellations (out of a total of 80,000) and Brock has reinstated the Wiley titles. The grievance at Brock has been dropped; there’s been no further media coverage of the outcome of Memorial’s decisions. Perhaps they had a read of the Provost’s blog wherein she pleaded for everyone to just calm down already. Media coverage tends to focus on this as a library problem - but as we’ll see, this is most certainly bigger than that, and the solution is going to require everyone in academia to pitch in.

If you can’t take the heat … just find more money!

Let’s circle back to the title of this post. Libraries, especially the folks who work in them who are passionate about OA, find themselves in a really tough spot. Hamstrung by finite budgets and researchers demanding access to everything immediately, we begin with negotiations. We’ve had some success through banding together in library consortia (OCUL, CRKN), however, the fact remains that our costs are increasing and our budgets are not keeping pace. We reach a breaking point and turn toward drastic measures (i.e. cancellations). Bad press ensues. Contingencies and communication plans are created to assuage concerns about access. Discussion of blue sky solutions such as adopting more OA materials begin, and then, often times, money is “found” and the cuts are reversed and we all go back to business as usual. Until renewal time comes around next year and we begin the crisis all over again. It’s really hard not to become a cynic in this environment.

Instead of using this perfect storm as the crisis turned opportunity of which it is worthy, libraries end up turning tail and begging for the time and patience of our corporate overlords like Bob Cratchit to Ebenezer Scrooge. The fact of the matter is that our institutions of higher education are simply not ready for an OA revolution for two reasons: promotion and tenure (P&T). The race to publish the in the Highest Impact Factor Journal is a fiercely competitive one because the stakes are so high. For myriad reasons, beyond the scope of this post, P&T committees are notorious in their relentless pursuit of candidates who publish in these journals. Universities increasingly rely on part time sessional instructors to do the lion’s share of teaching (because of the budget, of course… ahem); this creates an ocean of uber-qualified candidates for a tiny number of tenure track positions, which begets an environment that rewards “prestige”. It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself yet at the same time is destroying itself.

Publishers are being given implicit permission to increase their prices because they know that the glacial pace of change in academe will work to their advantage. Heck, they can even make it seem as though they are part of the solution with the advent of hybrid OA journals - except those in the know are painfully aware that double-dipping is just another revenue stream for publishers with a shiny label. When stories about why publishers charge such exorbitant amounts of money for their content, reps from the biggest offenders offer up the rationale that they process they are managing is delicate, complex and, well, downright expensive. While there may not yet be an ideal OA solution that suits all disciplines, there are many existing models available to build upon. Society won’t solve climate change overnight either, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get started with a long term strategy toward addressing it. Likewise, until there is a fundamental shift in the way higher education produces research and rewards researchers, this cycle will continue.

Let's play ball 

Cultural change is slow, particularly when academics are in charge. Universities are inherently political institutions, and where there is politics, there are power dynamics. And where there are power dynamics, there is usually a pot of money at stake somewhere in the story that’s playing out. Encouraging researchers and hiring committees to abandon all that they have ever known about publishing in favour of embracing things like altmetrics and alternative sustainable publishing models is a tall order and needs to start at the top in order to work its way through the system. Librarians at the negotiating table will continue to wage this uphill battle with negligible results until the folks who hold the purse strings AND those who do the hiring/promotion recognize that they have a major role to play in progressing toward less reliance on traditional academic publishing and its inherent costs. I’m not suggesting libraries CANCEL EVERYTHING just to get everyone’s attention, but the academic community has to come together to start playing hardball, and that comes with certain risks, including potential loss or delay in access to some content. Certainly a company that reaps higher profit margins than Pfizer would be willing to go that round with us, but as the status quo would indicate, we’re not even showing up to the game.

Jane Schmidt is a librarian at Ryerson University. She can be contacted by e-mail at or on Twitter @janeschmidt. 

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