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

As the nation’s first public university, Carolina’s tradition of public service is woven into the very fabric of the University. I am proud to serve an institution that proudly declares itself to be “of the public and for the public.” I see that commitment play out every single day as I interact with scholars who are committed to bettering the lives of North Carolinians and to making discoveries that will change the world. 

So, it is ironic that many of these scholars are locked into a publishing ecosystem that is about as far as one can get from serving the public good. This is the case not only at Carolina but at every major research institution in the country.  

To understand why this is so, let’s look at what is known as the “scholarly publishing cycle.” As we saw in my last post, publishing in scholarly journals to which libraries subscribe is the way that scholars share knowledge with one another—and have done so for hundreds of years. 

In addition to conducting the research itself, faculty members volunteer their labor as journal editors, editorial board members, and peer reviewers. They do this not only to advance knowledge, but also because an entire system of academic advancement and tenure grew up around the idea that faculty ought to publish their findings and should provide the services of editing and peer review that make it possible for other faculty members also to publish this way. 

When scholars and scholarly societies produced their own journals, this process made sense. But as large for-profit publishers stepped into the equation as the primary purveyors of academic journals, the costs and the benefits have fallen out of balance.  

To put it plainly, private publishers are leaning on taxpayers and universities to foot the bill for research and for the cost of its publication. Yet, if you are a member of the taxpaying public, much of this original research will be unavailable to you, hidden behind subscription paywalls. 

The only entity in all of this to turn a profit is the publisher—and those profits can be significant. The world’s largest publisher of scientific information is Elsevier. In 2018, Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, posted revenues of U.S. $9.8 billion, of which around 40% came from Elsevier. Carolina’s contribution to that total was nearly $2.5 million in subscription fees.  

As publishing has consolidated, fewer and fewer publishers serve as the gateway to the world’s research production. In fact, by 2013, just five publishers had come to control more than 50% of all academic published output. That’s a situation that’s never good for the consumer, in any industry. 

As a public institution so deeply committed to the public good and the betterment of all North Carolinians, I believe UNC-Chapel Hill has a special responsibility to raise awareness about the cost of research publications, and to turn the tide in favor of creative solutions that make information more affordable, sustainable, open, and transparent. 

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