The Crisis in Academic Publishing Comes to JMU
Journal packages sold by a handful of major publishers are pricing themselves out of the marketplace. Some of these journals support faculty research projects, scholarship and student learning. Publishing publicly funded research in these expensive titles means that the Commonwealth and the rest of the globe must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for journal access, if they can afford it. Exclusive, high-dollar titles translate to limited readership, limited visibility, and limited impact. While open access publishing is one pathway out of the maze of runaway subscription costs and access inequity, no single solution can answer every need.
JMU Libraries and our Virginia colleagues at six public doctoral institutions (a partnership called VRL: the Virginia Research Libraries) will soon enter contract renegotiations with Elsevier, the largest STEM academic publisher. We travel in distinguished company. The University of California system, Florida State, Carnegie Mellon, Louisiana State, and the national library consortia of Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have challenged established agreements with Elsevier and other large, corporate academic publishers. The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the State University of New York system, and others have walked away from exploitative “big deals.” Our success at the negotiating table requires your partnership, whether you are faculty, staff or student. Your understanding of the parameters of the crisis is critical because your support and input is pivotal to the success of these negotiations.
Journal subscription prices have risen 166% percent over the past 20 years. This is more than three times the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) over the same period. Vendors like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley typically sell journal packages (think cable TV bundles) to academic libraries in collections of 1,500- 2,300 titles. While these packages are marketed as cheaper than buying access to individual titles, a substantial percentage of the titles (19% Elsevier, 35% Wiley, 25% Springer as of 2018) garner zero (0) downloads yearly. We are paying for content our faculty and students do not want in order to access content relevant to our community.
Multinational corporations like Elsevier reap 35-40% annual profits from these sales, a profit margin comparable to the pharmaceutical industry, by charging 3-10 times what small nonprofit publishers charge with similar rates of citation. Who benefits from these profits? Business Insider reported that the current CEO of Reed/Elsevier (also known as RELX), Erik Engström, ranks fifth on the list of highest-paid CEOs on the London Stock Exchange, earning more than 10 million GBP (14 million USD) in 2017, sandwiched between the CEOs of BP and the pharmaceutical titan AstraZeneca.
Today, journal packages from only five publishers account for 58% of JMU Libraries’ journal subscriptions. Steep annual increases on journal collections that constitute a significant portion of the collections budget will become unsustainable and severely limit other collections investments. The Elsevier deal alone grows 7% between now and 2021—a contractual commitment we cannot change but also cannot repeat.
Unequal Access to Scholarship
While global dissemination of scholarship on the Internet has never been easier, the current paradigm of scholarly publishing serves a shrinking number of elite universities and consortia. Commonwealth of Virginia universities regularly pay three times for access to taxpayer-funded research: (1) universities pay faculty who produce research; (2) universities pay faculty who edit and peer review research publications; (3) universities pay vendors like Elsevier to provide access to the resulting content behind subscription paywalls. These same paywalls disproportionately disadvantage smaller universities and community colleges, schools in the Global South, healthcare providers and hospitals, and independent scholars. Scholarship cannot flourish without communication. Three of the major publishers control more than half of the scientific literature; Elsevier alone owns 24% of the scientific journal market. Locking up this much of the world’s scholarship behind unsustainably-priced paywalls imperils the academic enterprise, makes a mockery of the idea of publicly-funded research, fosters inequity for all participants in the scholarly ecosystem, and impacts access to information critical to improving human health and scientific advancement. Certainly, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown these access issues into stark relief.
Today’s paradigm of scholarly publishing is broken.
Does this mean you’ll cancel my favorite journal?
We regularly measure our journal usage along several axes to determine the value of each title to our community. We want to hear your qualitative feedback on which journal titles you consider essential and how you use them. Your liaison librarian collects this information individually and through departmental/school/college requests for input. Whether the economics of the situation force us to stop subscribing to specific titles or packages depends on contract negotiations between vendors and the Virginia Research Libraries and VIVA consortia.
No matter what, we will continue to work to provide access to the resources you need. JMU Libraries has been fulfilling Interlibrary Loan article requests in 48 hours or less for more than 20 years. There are other options for getting free and legal access to journal articles outside the paywall that you can also try. Beyond providing continuing access to articles, we will engage you in a conversation about these large journal publisher contracts as we work with other university libraries across Virginia to assess their value and sustainability.