In Opposition of Predatory Publisher Pricing Policies in Academics #GoOpen #OER

7 11 2015

When I was in grad school, our department chair gave us a mission.  Every time we walked into the medical library, we were to remove from the shelves an issue of a particular journal (I don’t recall which one now) and lay it on a table.  According to him, the library tracked how many journals were used in order to determine which subscriptions were renewed.  The yearly subscription for this particular journal was tens of thousands of dollars per year.

This week, editors of the Elsevier journal Lingua staged a protest – resigning from the publication due to Elsevier’s refusal to allow it to become open access.  In support of the editors, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities had this to say:

“Publishers sell back to the universities the very content they as a group produced, and at steadily higher subscription prices,” the statement said. “The system is fundamentally broken.”

I fully agree.  My graduate degree involved university and grant funded research in physiology.  The research was not published (the initial results were negative and the “great flood of 1997” wiped out the -70 freezer with a year worth of samples and also allowed me extended time off to see what I was missing in my little children’s lives – so I wrote up the initial data, cut my losses, and snatched the chance to take the MS and walk away, closing the door on my PhD).  But, if I had plugged on with the PhD and published, my mentor and department chair’s names in the byline could  have landed us in a decent journal.  A journal where libraries would have to pay a chunk of change to make the work available.

My graduate work was completed at a public, state university.  The research in our lab was funded by grants from the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association.  There were no private, commercial, for-profit funds used in my research – or, in fact, for any research in my department.  So, what is the justification for a library to have to pay exorbitant fees to buy access to read the results of this type of research?  If the university or grant fund is providing the lab space for the research, paying publication fees, and also paying for the finished journals where the research is published – aren’t they triple paying?  By extension, aren’t the taxpayers who support the university the ones triple paying as well?  How is this allowed to continue at such outrageous rates?  According to journal owners, there are costs (not to mention substantial profits – higher, even, than Apple). In actuality, it all comes down to “prestige” – paying for the credentials necessary for tenure in high-stakes “publish or perish” environments.

Libraries can’t afford this anymore.  For example, a browse through the “cancelled journalDSCF0826s” list for the University of Illinois library, where I worked for three years as an undergrad, shows a 2007 cancellation for the International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology – a savings of $9,629 a year.  The 2006 cancellation of Lecture Notes in Computer Science saved them $25,000 a year. In 2005, the subscription to the American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings saved them $21,000 per year.  Together, those three journals could cover the cost of a junior faculty member yearly salary.  What would benefit a student more, access to those three journals – or a smaller English comp class?  At the University of North Dakota (my graduate institution) the university is facing choices between administrative positions and journal subscriptions.  They cannot afford both.

The standard bearers of scientific research are the journals Science and Nature.  I, personally, subscribe to Science.  It’s around $100 a year on the multi-year digital-only plan.  That seems like a reasonable cost to me.  I’ll support that.  Libraries also support Science – you’d be hard-pressed to find a university library that doesn’t stock it on campus.  Maybe the quantity of subscriptions allows a lower cost?  Or maybe the lower cost allows more exposure?  It’s difficult to say for sure, since it takes quite a bit of investigative digging to find the true cost of any particular library journal.  Libraries often negotiate bundled prices which vary from school to school.

Fortunately, the tides are turning.  Last week, the US Department of Education announced a new initiative – #GoOpen.  This proposed policy would require that all research funded by the department be available as an OER (open educational resource).  The policy is supported by the Creative Commons open licensing group.  Although #GoOpen is a P-12 initiative, legislation was also introduced last month to promote OER textbook use in college courses.  Hopefully, the movement will trickle into academic publishing at all levels.

While I support the rights of authors to copyright, and profit from, their original work, I oppose the practice of charging academic authors to publish in journals only to then turn around and CHARGE THEM AGAIN to have their work available in their own school library.  The only party to profit in such a scheme is the publisher.

Last year I wrote an OER Biology textbook, freely available to anyone from my faculty web page.  By the end of 2016, I plan to have four of the six courses I teach using primarily OER resources.  As I’ve stated before, I have no issues with authors profiting from their original work.  I also have no problem with publishers paying their editors and support staff a reasonable wage.  I do however, have an issue with predatory pricing, and I support OER initiatives by making my own work freely available.  US commercial academic publishers have come to see both students and “publish or perish” faculty members as fish in a barrel.  I cannot, in good conscience, support that.

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