January 31, 2012
A Nugget from the Crumbling Edifice of Academic Publishing

There’s something interesting going on right now, and it involves Elsevier.

Elsevier is one of the publishers that libraries love to hate. Their bundling practices eat up substantial portions of our subscription budgets, and force us to subscribe to dozens if not hundreds of titles we may not be interested in just so we can get one or two that we are, or that our faculty want, or that are core titles that we really can’t do without. The issue is arguably worse for small libraries like mine, serving teaching-oriented institutions and with a primary mission to support the curriculum. We have a smaller number of faculty and a narrower range of research specialties than an R1. Bundles can be an easy way to cover all of these, but at considerable financial cost and with the added burden of hundreds of journals for which we have no conceivable use.

Library resistance to this is rare, and none has received much attention since Cornell’s much-publicized rejection of bundle subscriptions in 2003. The reason is contained in the Cornell case itself: the Cornell Libraries did not make this decision unilaterally, but after considerable on campus debate and a resolution from the Faculty Senate. Simply put, if the academy is going to push back against the excesses of commercial publishers, academics themselves must lead the charge. If academics are publishing in, editing, reviewing for, and using journals published by Elsevier—or any other publisher—the library cannot in good conscience refuse to subscribe to those journals. What we can do is make our researchers aware of the problem, and of how they can help us solve it.

And academics are listening. As reported yesterday by the Chronicle of Higher Education, last week mathematician Timothy Gowers detailed the sins of Elsevier in his (well worth reading) blog and publicly refused to have anything to do with them. Next thing you know, there’s a boycott, standing (as of this posting) at 2280 participants.

There is simply no good motive—beyond profit—for academic publishing to cost as much as it does. We’ve defeated SOPA/PIPA, only to be confronted by the Research Works Act, which will, if passed, roll back much of what progress has been made toward making the research that the public has funded freely available to that public. Among Gowers’s other grievances, Elsevier is a supporter of the RWA.