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

I propose a simple solution. We should give the public access to the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which we publish our ideas and discoveries.Michael Eisen, December 22, 2005

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.Association of Research Librarians, March 1998

PLoS co-founder Michael Eisen has earned the right to call cowardice on the elite universities that have continued to allow the journal monopolies to maintain their out-date business model, and their extortion-level pricing. Other academics will sometimes write supporting open access, but overall their posture remains submissive. In this essay Michael is refreshingly clear and frank on why the serials crisis still exists, at least a decade after universities could have refused to pay the extortion:

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.

(…) 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

(…)

Read the whole essay for the solution. If Harvard is feeling squeezed by the extortion, then we may be reaching the tipping point.