Harvard open memo says major journal publishers’ prices are “untenable”

On April 17, 2012, Harvard University’s Faculty Advisory Council on the Library issued an open memo to the Harvard community stating that “major periodical subscriptions cannot be sustained” due to high prices and unreasonable publisher practices. If this topic sounds familiar, it’s because it’s already been in the news recently – in January, mathematician Timothy Gowers-Lee blogged about these issues specifically as they relate to publishing giant Elsevier. In February, a website was created where scholars could sign on to a boycott of Elsevier; as of today over 10,000 signatures have been gathered. The Harvard memo avoids mentioning specific companies, instead  referring to “certain publishers” that receive close to $3.75 million per year from Harvard for its subscriptions to their journals. Harvard’s expenses for online journal content from just two major providers has increased 145% over the past six years. The memo states, “The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership,  reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.” Harvard University is certainly not alone in struggling with rising subscription costs – it’s been discussed in the professional literature since the 1990s, when publishers introduced the “big deal” pricing model of requiring libraries to subscribe to less important journals along with their subscriptions to essential titles. Only recently, though, have the mainstream media begun reporting on publishers’ questionable practices. Although it’s too soon to say whether the Harvard memo will have any direct impact on the industry, it’s definitely increasing public awareness of an issue that  not only affects Harvard but is jeopardizing the financial sustainability of academia as a whole. Recommended reading: ⇒ Full text of the Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing ⇒ “Harvard Now Spending Nearly $3.75 Million on Academic Journal Bundles,” The Atlantic, April 23, 2012 ⇒ “The wealthiest university on Earth can’t afford its academic journal subscriptions,” io9.com, April 24, 2012 ⇒ “If Harvard Can’t Afford Academic Journal Subscriptions, Maybe It’s Time for an Open Access Model,” Time, April 26, 2012 ⇒ “Harvard panel pushes benefits of free journals,” The Boston Globe, April 28, 2012