Campus & Community

Libraries take a stand

8 min read

Journals present rising costs to libraries – and to scholarship

Students and faculty logging onto the HOLLIS catalog after winter break found a decrease in the number of periodicals available from Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers of scientific journals. According to Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, the decision to eliminate these journals was the result of 15 months of careful consideration. “It was driven not only by current financial realities,” Verba states, “but also – and perhaps more importantly – by the need to reassert control over our collections and to encourage new models for research publication at Harvard.” Similar steps have been taken at other major research institutions, including Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and the Triangle Research Libraries Network.

Some of the eliminated titles were duplicate print subscriptions. Others were underused. Harvard libraries will fulfill requests for articles from these journals through interlibrary loan and third-party document delivery services.

photograph of journals on library
(Staff file photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

The eliminated titles were chosen with care and coordination. “Over the past few years,” says Jeffrey Horrell, associate librarian of Harvard College for collections, “Harvard has become much better organized with the creation of the University-wide Digital Acquisitions and Collections Committee and the Science Libraries Council, chaired by Lynne Schmelz. We are able to work effectively with outside publishers and vendors. Instead of addressing collection issues of each tub separately, we are working together. In this case, we are one voice to Elsevier.”

Harvard libraries also embarked on an aggressive program to eliminate duplicate print subscriptions. According to Horrell, “We are also confronting the significant amount of duplication of copies of a single title that exist at Harvard. We have established procedures for designating a ‘library of record,’ by which a library will be responsible for maintaining a subscription and others can cancel the copy knowing it is available.”

According to Ivy Anderson, digital acquisitions program librarian in the University Library, “Elsevier is the largest worldwide publisher of science, technology, and medicine (STM) journals, commanding 18 percent of this market. By contrast, all nonprofit publishers combined comprise only 21 percent. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Elsevier’s STM revenues have doubled to $2.33 billion since 1999. For the academic consumers of its journals, however, this high profitability – nearly 34 percent in 2003 – has come at a cost. Between 1986 and 2001, research library spending for scholarly journals rose by 210 percent – well over three times the rate of inflation – while the number of subscriptions actually declined by 5 percent.”

Stuart Shieber, Harvard’s James O. Welch and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science, reports that the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) had concluded on its own that changes needed to be made. “Within the Division,” Shieber said, “we realized that half of our serials budget was going to Elsevier…. We decided that … it was in our best interest to cut dramatically, in the end cutting back from 131 Elsevier journals to about 35.”

With the advent of the Internet and the dissemination of journals online, Harvard introduced a new methodology for journal acquisitions. In the print-only era, each Harvard library could make decisions to purchase specific journals – the copies of which remained the property of the particular library. Digital versions of the journals are not purchased by the University. Instead, access to the journals’ content is licensed to the University by the publisher through renewable licenses. Online access has not eliminated the need for libraries to acquire print copies of these journals among their permanent holdings – complicating the process for journals acquisition.

At the same time, major publishers – notably Elsevier – instituted the practice of “bundling” large numbers of journals into a single subscription or license. These bundling practices squeeze library budgets by requiring libraries to maintain large, fixed levels of expenditure without the ability to cancel unneeded subscriptions. This has contributed to rising costs for journals overall and to the acquisition of journals that are rarely used by faculty and students.

Through the Library Digital Initiative (LDI), launched in July 1998, Harvard established the present, University-wide digital acquisitions program. The program “brings Harvard libraries together to license electronic resources on behalf of the entire academic community,” Anderson says, “and it has been an engine of cooperation and collaboration across Harvard’s diverse library units. One of our activities involves working with the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium (NERL), a consortium of peer research institutions, to negotiate University-wide licenses for electronic journals. In 2003, we worked on two fronts: First, through NERL, to achieve reduced pricing and better overall terms from Elsevier; second, with Harvard libraries to develop strategies for managing collections and containing costs. We’ve had tremendous participation from librarians across the University-particularly from the Countway Library of Medicine and the Gordon McKay Library, which serves DEAS.”

While the NERL consortium did achieve modest improvements in its licensing terms with Elsevier, Elsevier’s 2004 contract proposal to NERL was not responsive to Harvard’s objectives. Its best offer would increase Harvard’s costs for Elsevier journals by $500,000 within five years. Harvard would be left without the ability to reduce its spending by pruning its holdings, a situation that greatly concerned the Digital Acquisitions and Collections Committee and the University Library Council.

As a result, says Verba, “We have foregone the NERL Elsevier license in 2004 in order to regain control over Harvard library collections in a manner that responds to the University’s academic programs. The libraries will purchase online access to Elsevier journals individually and selectively. We believe that this action is a necessary step toward the larger and more urgent goal of restoring control over research dissemination to the research community, a goal that will require strong leadership from the faculty.”

The Elsevier negotiations didn’t surprise Markus Meister, Harvard’s Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. He serves on the editorial board of the Public Library of Science, one of the open-access journals that present an alternative to costly commercial publishing. According to Meister, “It’s interesting to think about a drastic alternative to scientific publishing – such as the open-access journals that are springing up, like the Public Library of Science. In the long run, there needs to be some change in the structure of scholarly communications. The authors that rely on these Elsevier journals as a channel for publishing should be encouraged to find another channel. And … the faculty who are providing their services for free as editors and reviewers should be encouraged to devote their energies elsewhere.” Thus far, Meister reports, the impact of the Elsevier cuts seems minimal.

Shieber agrees, noting, “The attitude of the faculty has already changed. More and more, faculty members realize that the current system for dissemination of scholarly information is unsustainable. Commercial publishers act in the best interests of their shareholders rather than the scholarly community. The big issue is the fairness and rationality in the system as a whole – not what Elsevier charges for its journals.

“Scholars and academics develop their results,” Shieber says. “They write their articles. They serve on the editorial boards of these journals at no charge and with no compensation. They do all the reviewing unpaid. Eventually these articles are published in one of these journals that gets sold back to the libraries for the use of these same scholars – at exorbitant prices. The solution is not to compensate the authors, editors, and reviewers, but to eliminate the middlemen. That’s the principle of open-access publication.”

While Harvard addresses long-term issues, the present strategy with Elsevier has short-term impact. According to Verba, “Our libraries will have to fulfill requests for articles from these journals through interlibrary loan and third-party document delivery services.”

Marc Kirschner, the Carl W. Walter Professor of Systems Biology in the Harvard Medical School, is concerned that the Elsevier cuts may have an impact on his own writing and research. “As things get cut back,” Kirschner says, “I have to have faith that the libraries have done the best possible job making their cuts. There will be a cost. How much of a cost is unclear. It won’t affect the standard level of readership. And most faculty won’t get down to the level of journals that you’re talking about. But right now, the behavior of commercial publishers like Elsevier stands as an obstacle to science.”

According to Verba, the Elsevier decision is of strategic importance. “By following this course of action, Harvard will achieve the freedom to exercise judgment about which publishing avenues to support in providing academic content to our students and faculty. … We believe this action can be a springboard for a vigorous and sustained effort to foster new models of research publication at Harvard.”

Provost Steven E. Hyman concurs. “This is a core academic problem that the University must address across the faculties,” Hyman states. “The libraries are the recipient of this problem in terms of budget and space and consumer demand. But it’s an issue that our faculty – and scholars everywhere – must grapple with.”