The Right of No Sale: Academic Publishing is Broken and Librarians are to Blame

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
 — Proverb

The sharing economy has helped eliminate what used to be necessary but are now largely antiquated middlemen from several industries. Airbnb, Uber, EatWith, and new crowdsourcing models are flourishing. Wikipedia’s another great example of a project that has, in this case, harnessed the power of the Internet community to help spread information.

Other markets have witnessed fights against exceptions to copyright controls. Companies have implemented prohibitive clickthrough software EULAs, defective by design DRM restrictions, and are pushing legislation blocking the freedom to tinker.

The open access movement (cf. arXiv, PLOS, OERs) has disrupted, to varying degrees, the economic models of traditional publishers by providing unfettered access to scholarly literature. Just as with the vanity presses of old, the system is subject to abuse in the form of sham publishing houses. However, nowadays the moniker “predatory publisher” is best suited to commercial entities with obscene profit margins who capitalize their market share and place content behind a paywall.

Open access holds promise for helping libraries endure the crunch of budget cuts and spiraling journal costs. This is why it’s so disheartening to see academic authors act more like Lars Ulrich than scholars who want their results to be seen and their ideas to be read. Rather than advancing research and expanding discourse, they willfully embargo their content and practice other forms of self-censorship by donating their work not to the public, but institutions which limit access in the name of turning a profit.

There’s nothing wrong with making an honest buck, but when you’re conducting funded research on your employer’s property, you have no business charging for your scholarship. The disdain that most educators have for the retailization of teaching and learning — as in for-profit colleges, or outsourcing operations to corporations — is inexplicably missing when it comes to providing the sole source of income to commercial publishers.

Don’t fault companies for trying to make money. That’s their purpose. The only reason costs have grown exponentially is because customers have been willing to pay more. It is therefore our responsibility as librarians, should we have any qualms about bearing such prices, to stop accepting them.

For decades, libraries have tried to wean their readers off expensive but popular and prestigious journals. We’ve gone hat in hand to departmental meetings, imploring authors to support open access publications. There’s been some slow traction, but so far this is still the exception to the intransigent practices of many scholars. You have to publish in costly journals to get tenure, and those journals are pricey because people write for them. We can’t break that cycle by merely asking the current generation of researchers to change their stripes.

It’s easy to make collection development decisions based on how many squeaky wheels insist certain titles are vital to their studies. But there’s also simple equations that can be applied to determine the costs per item, and ideally per use, to justify expenditures. With the possible exception of curating special collections, you don’t need to bankrupt your organization buying overpriced materials, no matter who needs them. Acquisition choices are often more complex and nuanced, but they don’t have to be. If something costs more than what it should be worth, we shouldn’t engender price gouging by purchasing it.

What’s astounding is how the same academic librarians who have no qualms about telling students wanting to be handed five articles on their topic that they must instead do their own research themselves have no such sense of tough love in applying equitable service policies when treating faculty members’ demands for journal subscriptions from profiteering publishers as unquestionable gospel.

Years ago, my university’s bookstore, in response to student protests, altered their roster of approved vendors to become sweatshop free. Electing not to give business to companies that exploit their workers is a laudable model for libraries to follow. This is not so much activism as it is ensuring our survival.

If even the richest universities in the land can’t afford them, it’s high time other academic libraries vote with their wallet en masse and stop renewing licenses to exorbitantly-priced resources. Many faculty members would revolt at such measures, just as they did when we got rid of the card catalog, an equally untenable system given available alternatives.

Further Reading