Some online academic journals have doubled in price since 2005.

Harvard faculty members were told this month that spending millions every year on scholarly journals “cannot be sustained,” and they were implored to publish their work in an open-access format while encouraging others to do the same.

The campus’s Faculty Advisory Council sent the bluntly-worded message April 17, sounding an alarm about the “untenable” model of buying and subscribing to journals that can cost as much as $40,000 annually.

Two providers of scholarly material have more than doubled their annual prices for online content since 2005, while Harvard spent more than $3.7 million for its collection of academic journals in 2011.

The Faculty Advisory Council said that research funding given to the university has not compensated for the massive and consistent price increases in journal costs.

“The library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the university on grant and research funds,” the council’s letter said.

Continuing with the current academic journal model, the council charged, “would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.”

The letter addressed to faculty members included nine suggestions for how they can help the school slash its spending on academic journals. Among the suggestions: Publishing research in respected open-access journals, freely accessible online.

“Move prestige to open access,” the letter said.

Other suggestions included publishing research in journals with a more reasonable pay-per-use system, contacting organizations to raise the issue of affordable or open-access journals, and helping “library-friendly” groups gain control of scholarly literature.

The letter was made public just a week before Harvard, on April 24, put bibliographic information for all 12 million of its libraries’ works into the public record. Information from all of the university’s audio recordings, videos, manuscripts, maps, and books—housed in 73 libraries—was made available under the Creative Commons public domain license.

Harvard’s concerns about the cost of academic journals signal just how serious the problem of expensive journal subscriptions has become in higher education, observers said.

“Everything’s in flux, markets are rearranging,” Jonathan Rochkind, a senior programmer and analyst for Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a blog called Bibliographic Wilderness. “But I think I sense a general swing of the pendulum back to per-use fees; interestingly sometimes this is what libraries want and sometimes it’s what libraries resist, and the same for publishers and aggregators.”

Rochkind said a “downside of metered pricing”—Harvard’s recommended pay-per-use system—is that it could lead to a model that limits the number of research queries a student could submit in a university’s library collection.

That could turn college students away from respected academic journals and reliable search systems and toward the internet’s search giant.

“Google isn’t metered, and scholars and patrons can continue to abandon us for Google, even if it’s doesn’t provide them with everything we could,” he wrote, “if it’s easier to use, if it’s not metered, and we are.”

Duke University in 2010 signed on to the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity (COPE), an effort first introduced by Stuart Shieber, a computer science professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication.

Nine U.S. universities have signed the pledge to “recognize the crucial value of the services provided by scholarly publishers” and underwrite “reasonable publication charges” that could make it feasible for faculty members to submit research articles to the open-access program.

The American schools that have signed COPE are Harvard, Duke, Cornell, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California Berkeley, Dartmouth College, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the University of Michigan.

Duke, like other universities that have signed the compact, established a fund that will cover the costs of publishing academic research, according to the university library’s web site. Duke will dole out up to $3,000 a year to cover scholars’ article processing fees, and unused funds cannot roll over to the next year.

Other campuses, such as MIT, limit reimbursements to $1,000 per article, regardless of the number of researchers credited with the work, according to an MIT announcement.


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