By Elaine Westbrooks, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Portrait of Elaine Westbrooks, University Librarian and Vice Provost for University Libraries
Elaine Westbrooks, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian, UNC-Chapel Hill

Great thinkers and inventors of the seventeenth century helped pave the way for modern science, technology and humanistic studies. It’s the century that gave us telescopes, microscopes, calculus, even champagne. 

The seventeenth century also saw the very first publications that we would today call academic journals. Le Journal des Sçavans and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London both made their appearance in 1665, in France and England, respectively. Through these and similar publications, scholars and the scholarly societies to which they belonged documented and shared discoveries. 

At a time when presses were costly and paper was a scarce commodity, the printing and circulation of subscription journals enabled knowledge to flourish and discoveries to build upon discoveries. Scholarly societies served the function of vetting and disseminating findings for the greater good 

This fundamental approach to disseminating new findings endured, even as other changes in the scholarly process took hold. In the mid20th century, a system of scholarly peer review supplanted the judgement of individual editors when it came to deciding which findings to publish. Simultaneously, the post-War boom and the Cold War spurred immense government investments in academic research, also accelerating the rate of publication and the need for ever more specialized journals. 

In this environment, publishers began identifying an opportunity for profit. Not only did they move to establish new journals, but they also contracted with the scholarly societies, taking over the operational aspects of journal publishing on the societies’ behalf, and eventually moving these titles into the online environment, as well. 

While this model worked well for the publishers and simplified a revenue stream for the societies, it has wreaked havoc in other ways. The same journal subscriptions that libraries once purchased at nominal cost directly from the societies are today breaking institutional budgets as publishers raise prices at many times the rate of inflation. Libraries no longer order journals from scholars acting to benefit scholarship. Instead, we must negotiate massive licensing packages with for-profit publishers, many of them answerable not to scholars but to shareholders.  

Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific information, boasts a profit margin near 40% and its parent company, RELX, had U.S. revenues of $9.8 billion in 2018. Five years ago, Carolina’s University Libraries paid $2 million to Elsevier alone to license journals from its list. This year, the cost is $2.6 million for the same package. 

Four hundred years after the first scholarly journals appeared, the internet means everything has changed. And, yet, nothing has changed. The scholarly journal remains the currency of the academic realm and one of the most important means that researchers have to share their findings, make a reputation and earn tenure. 

The pressing need to rethink this system—and to bring the joint negotiating leverage of libraries to bear on the problems of runaway license costs—led me to join library and faculty participants from 16 other institutions in signing the joint Open Access Tipping Point Public Affirmation: 

While our approaches and strategies may take different forms, we affirm the importance of using journal license negotiations to promote open access to our scholarship and to support sustainable business models, including the elimination of dual payments to publishers. 

We will advocate broadly, and work with our stakeholders both locally and in existing consortia, to advance these common goals. 

In future posts, I will write more about the relationship between scholarly publishing and scholars, as well as some of the specific avenues we at Carolina are pursuing to decrease costs of and expand access to the fruits of research. 

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Update October 10, 2019: This post originally misstated Elsevier’s 2018 revenues and the length of time over which Carolina’s Elsevier subscription costs increased. Those figures have been corrected.

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