Harvard University Library Slaps Its Glove in the Face of High Journal Prices

This is probably the most interesting story to come out of university libraries in some time. I applaud Harvard for suggesting it, because it will take a place like Harvard to pull it off. Faculty at Harvard have, for all practical purposes, made it. They don’t need to keep publishing at the most prestigious journals in order to advance and maybe get hired by a place like Harvard because here they are.

And, if they decided that publishing with smaller, less-expensive journals or publishing with some kind of open-source thingy is more prestigious than not, other scholars will follow suit.

This has been an enormous problem not only for libraries, but also in the university press world. If the cost of journals rises so quickly and eats up more and more of a more and more limited budget, it means university presses sell fewer books, because libraries don’t have the budget for them.

It’s nice to see someone pointing out to scholars what they can do to help university institutions like libraries and presses survive.

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7 thoughts on “Harvard University Library Slaps Its Glove in the Face of High Journal Prices

  1. I applaud Harvard for taking this stand.

    Of course, I cannot pass noting up the irony of Harvard, with its +$30 billion endowment, protesting other producers’ raising their prices when the cost of college has gone up at close to the same rate as health care costs in the last couple of decades. A cynic might suggest that if higher taxes on the wealthy are good for America, then some sort of higher taxes or other form of confiscation, of part of the endowments of the major universities would be good for American Higher Education.

    And wasn’t Harvard one of the schools caught conspiring to limit financial aid to students choosing between certain schools to reduce competition for top high school graduates?

    That doesn’t diminish the value of this decision but it is still ironic and hypocritical,

  2. Mark, I think you’ve missed a couple of vital points. One Harvard’s library is encouraging Harvard’s faculty to do something to help Harvard’s library (which will have a ripple effect on others). Harvard University isn’t taking this stand.

    The difference between the library asking the faculty to reconsider where they publish and the University telling the faculty to reconsider where they publish is vast. I applaud the first one. I would be chilled and upset by the second.

    Second, universities don’t pay taxes.

    So your point is what, exactly? That if we pretend like this story is a little different than it actually is, it kind of tells us something about the supposed hipocricy of liberals, if we also assume that everyone in the administration at Harvard is liberal?

    Okay, fine, I concede, if we ignore the facts on the ground and instead go with what you’re proposing, it is ironic.

  3. Aunt B.,

    Maybe so. I understood the article to say that Harvard was reducing the number of periodicals to which it subscribes because of the high costs of such publications. Part of that would entail allowing Harvard to publish articles written by Harvard faculty since they would be open source to the Harvard community.

    My support for Harvard comes out of a suspicion that some {possibly many or all} of the publishers of these journals overcharge for their product. Given the degree of specializations in everything from Geology to Ancient Near Eastern History, it is easy to see how monopolies could develop.

    At the same time, Harvard has a history of anti-competitive behavior by colluding with other universities to prevent top students from making their decision to enroll based on financial aid. I appreciate the absurdity of some of the costs cited in the article but I don’t see Harvard doing much to reduce costs and keep tuition down.

    I do have a question about how some articles will get adequate peer review. It was my impression that the cost of some of these publications was related to the expense of the review process.

    Regarding my other point, I realize that colleges don’t pay taxes. I was just having a bit of fun at the expense of Harvard. In the world of college endowments, Harvard is something akin to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. If Congress were to pass a law that required schools with an endowment of over $5 billion to donate 50% of the profit from their endowments each year into a fund that provides scholarship for poor students from high poverty areas, think how many lives would be improved.

    But Harvard and its very liberal faculty would never embrace that approach because they believe that Harvard is more important than a lot of poor children. And why take a reduction in the endowment when it is easier to get people to pay more taxes?

  4. “Faculty at Harvard have, for all practical purposes, made it. They don’t need to keep publishing at the most prestigious journals in order to advance and maybe get hired by a place like Harvard because here they are.” – Yes. I think this aspect of the tenure process is broken and stupid anyway, but yes. Now, if a bunch of top institutions banded together to make their own discipline-focused OA publications (even in broad categories like “medicine” and “biology”), that would be even more dramatic.

    Mark, the notion that there’s a specialized geology journal here and a specialized ancient near eastern history journal there each overcharging in a one-off way does not at all reflect the reality on the ground for journal subscription pricing. For the most part (the part that’s a problem), a multitude of publications in a variety of specialties are controlled and priced by a very few corporations, who leverage those holdings to squeeze more and more money out of institutions like Harvard while simultaneously depending on the free labor of those institutions for the peer review and editorial services that allow the product to exist in the first place (see also: broken and stupid tenure processes that encourage scholars to keep providing this labor).

  5. I assume that by “faculty” Mark means “tenured faculty.” Because anyone who thinks that there’s less pressure involved in getting tenure at Harvard than there is elsewhere has it exactly backwards, anyway.

  6. I have been trying and trying to understand what Mark is talking about with all this “caught” and “colluding” language about the ivy’s decision to give commensurate aid packages to many students. It’s such a weird take on what universities are about and on what grounds students can and should make decisions.

    First, universities are non-profit institutions. Endowments are about funds permitting long-term plans to achieve on-going educative and research ends. The “wealth” of a university just is not like the wealth of a person. Endowments are built partly by investment but largely via donations, or investing donated money. money that people like Gates and Buffet donate. It makes no sense to even consider laws requiring divestment. Maybe one could talk about limiting charitable donations to universities or something. But that’s government overstretch that I’ve never heard anyone advocate from any political position.

    Second, universities would rather, and should, compete over the quality and type of education they deliver, not first and foremost financially (again, because these are not corporations). So a group of schools about equal in what they can offer educatively got together to equalize what they can offer financially so that students can make decisions about where to go based on the location and ethos of a school and the strength of certain departments.

    But mostly I want to apologize to B for further helping Mark derail this thread. The post was an interesting post about academic publishing. But Mark can’t help himself when certain words get typed he thinks he can spew forth every thought he has – especially if he thinks they make “liberals” look bad and stupid – without any concern for the conversation he’s joining.

  7. Rachel,

    Thanks for the information. It is very helpful. It would seem that the situation you describe would be ripe for some form of anti-trust investigation. On the face of it, $40,000 for a journal seems high and suggests that there is collusion in the industry.

    nm,

    I don’t think I mentioned tenured vs non-tenured faculty as an issue.

    Professor,

    “I have been trying and trying to understand what Mark is talking about with all this “caught” and “colluding” language about the ivy’s decision to give commensurate aid packages to many students. It’s such a weird take on what universities are about and on what grounds students can and should make decisions.”

    Well Professor, the Justice Department called it ” a conspiracy to set financial aid awards at a fixed level for any given applicant, thereby depriving students of the benefits of price competition.’ 3″

    And since the Ivies and chose to end the practice rather than fight it in court, one can only assume that they must have felt that they had good chance of losing.

    Put simply, I was observing a bit of irony that Harvard was objecting to being screwed by journal publishers when it had been using a similar strategy to maximize the tuition it could get from students and minimize the financial aid offered students.

    As for the endowment, I think that a school with a multi-billion dollar endowment that tries to soak students and their families is less ethical than Exxon. And, assuming that faculty sat on the admission committee, why weren’t the faculty defending the students from this process?

    http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1955&context=bclr

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