If Harvard Can’t Afford Academic Journal Subscriptions, Maybe It’s Time for an Open Access Model

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Last week, Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council revealed that the school now spends $3.75 million annually on academic journal subscriptions. Why so much? According to a memo the council sent out, some journals cost the school up to $40,000 every year, with the two top publishers increasing the price of content 145% over the last six years.

This is troubling for a number of reasons. First, in an age where the public can browse nearly 4 million articles for free on Wikipedia, a curious person looking to read up on the latest scientific research can expect to spend nearly $30 to $40 for a single paper from publishers such as Elsevier and Springer.

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While it would be nice if academic journals were affordable for the general public, they are an absolute necessity for university faculty and graduate students. Like your cable provider, publishers often sell content in huge bundles, packing in less desirable content with the good stuff and raising the price.

It’s not like publishers are hurting for cash, either, according to the memo:

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 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.

Now, let me remind you that this is Harvard saying this, the school with the highest endowment in the United States. You could claim that Harvard is simply angling for a discount from key publishers, but the fact remains that $10,000 to $40,000 for an academic journal subscription is a high price to pay, especially if you’re a smaller school with more serious budget problems.

One possible solution posited by Harvard to its academics:

Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.

“Move prestige to open access” is exactly what Paul Ginsparg did in 1991 at Los Alamos National Laboratory when he created xxx.lanl.gov, a site initially meant to handle 100 submissions per year in the field of high-energy particle physics. Eventually it was renamed arXiv.org and moved to Cornell University. It now receives nearly 75,000 new submissions every year, all freely available to anyone who wants to view them.

In a paper written late last year, Ginsparg pointed out the benefits of this model, saying it “had an immediate impact on physicists in less developed countries, who reported feeling finally in the loop, both for timely receipt of research ideas and for equitable reading of their own contributions.”

The problem, according to Ginsparg, is that the academic community has been slow to embrace new technology:

When the Internet was essentially an academic monopoly, new developments were naturally adapted to the needs of the research community. The focus is now elsewhere, and the vast resources invested in commerce and entertainment have left scientists momentarily behind the forefront of interactive Web phenomena.

Traditional academic journals certainly have their place. But if they continue their monopolistic business practices, eventually academics are going to look elsewhere. Open access journals — increasingly outfitted with inventive new ways to search and interact with content — are looking more and more attractive. The commercial sector has already embraced the promise of the Internet; it’s time for academia to do the same.

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