Harvard backs open access in face of ‘prohibitive’ journal costs

A committee of senior Harvard academics has urged the university’s staff to publish in open access journals amid concern that the cost of journal subscriptions is becoming “untenable”.

April 28, 2012

In an email sent to all Harvard faculty members last week, Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council to the Library complains that “many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive”.

Specific publishers are not mentioned by name, but those the committee has in mind are likely to include Elsevier, which attracted criticism earlier this year by initially backing a US bill that would have outlawed open access mandates. More than 10,000 academics have since pledged to boycott the company.

“Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35 per cent and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles,” the council’s email says.

The value of Harvard’s endowment is currently around $32 billion (£19.7 billion). But, in consultation with senior librarians, the committee has concluded that contracts with “at least two major providers” cannot be renewed “on the basis identical with past agreements” since costs are now “prohibitive”.

The email invites faculty to comment on the feasibility of various options, including submitting articles to open-access journals, or to “ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs”. The council hopes this will “move prestige” to open access journals.

Harvard faculty on the editorial board of journals published by the offending companies are also urged to investigate whether they can be made open access or published independently. If not, they should consider resigning, the email says.

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London and an open access advocate, says on his blog: “If one of the most prestigious and richest institutions in the world cannot afford its journal subscriptions, then there is a serious problem in academic publishing.”

A government-convened committee chaired by Dame Janet Finch, a former vice-chancellor of Keele University, is currently considering the feasibility of the UK moving to open access. It is expected to report next month.


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