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University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks is on a mission to open Carolina’s research to all

October 12, 2019

This interview was originally published October 11, 2019, on The Well, the University’s news source for faculty and staff.

Book, laptop and cell phone wrapped in chains
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

For decades, universities have been part of an academic publishing ecosystem in which their researchers submit studies and scholarly papers to peer-reviewed academic journals. Publishers do not pay scholars for conducting the research or for reviewing the work of their peers. And when journals do publish research, the content is generally restricted to only its subscribers. University libraries subscribe to thousands of journals, paying annual fees of as much as $40,000 per journal, so that faculty, staff and students can access the research produced on their campus.

“There’s really no other industry where the creator and the consumer are one and the same, but the final product is apart from the creator and the consumer,” said University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks. “That cycle has made publishers quite wealthy.”

In an era of rising costs and declining revenues, the traditional model of academic publishing is unsustainable for universities, Westbrooks said. Now, Carolina is among the academic institutions seeking to challenge the status quo and innovate for the public good.

The University’s contract with Elsevier, one of the big five academic publishers who control the production of scholarly journals, expires Dec. 31. Other publisher agreements will soon follow, and earlier this year Westbrooks indicated that any new contracts will be closely scrutinized. Over the last several months, she and other librarians have met with dozens of groups across campus to learn more about how they want to access information.

Upcoming town halls allow the campus community to share input. All three town halls will be in Room 214, Davis Library and are accepting registrations:

Elaine Westbrooks in Davis Library
Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost for University libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill

The Well recently sat down with Westbrooks to talk about the future of academic publishing and how it will impact the University’s mission of research, teaching and service.

Q: What is the message you want to send to University faculty about the current situation?

A: I hope our scholars realize that this is something that has to be done. This is the tipping point for us. The money is not there to support the status quo. I’ve heard from many faculty who agree that that we need to change this system that we have.

The current model is unsustainable for universities and is inconsistent with the values of a public university. We’re “of the public, for the public,” designed to serve the state and the citizens of the state. So, I feel as though we have no choice but to transform this system to critique what we’ve done. That critique is going to have some consequences, which I think are good.

 Q: What are you looking for in a new contract with Elsevier?

A: Elsevier is the world’s biggest publisher of scientific information, and we have a multimillion-dollar contract with them. Given its relevance to science, technology and health care, it is at the top of our list. The subscription cost of journals is rising at a rate three to four times inflation. We’re negotiating with Elsevier to find out what kind of license we can sign that will be affordable, sustainable, promotes open access and is transparent. Those are the four values that we have set. We’re at a tipping point where it’s just not possible to keep doing business as usual.

Q: What’s “business as usual” for subscriptions?

A: It’s like cable TV. They’d combine many journals into a single big package and we would just say, “Yes, we’ll take that package.” At the time, it was advantageous and nondisclosure agreements kept us from comparing deals with other libraries. Now we have to be more selective. It’s great to have all these titles, but if we only really need the premium titles, then it’s not a good use of funds. We’re really focused on the quality, not the quantity.

Q: What changes do you foresee in the way that our community consumes research?

A: What really matters to most scholars and students is how we deliver relevant content when they need it. And that’s a key part — when you need it, not just in case you need it. Moving forward, we may not have every single journal or article on the premises at this very second. In fact, we don’t right now. But we’ll get it for you. In some cases, it takes 48 hours, in some cases 24 hours, in some cases just a couple of hours. But we have the technology to acquire content very quickly and send it to your email address at no charge to you.

Q: What does this mean for our faculty and researchers as creators of the content?

A: Typically, when you get your paper accepted by a journal, the first thing the publisher wants you to do is to hand over your rights. This can often be negotiated, and it would be incredibly gratifying to see our scholars own the rights to their own scholarship and allow others to have access to it. We also want to eliminate what we call “double dipping” by the publisher. That’s when we pay for a title, and researchers also pay the publisher a fee to make that same research open access. If the research is sponsored by a public agency such as the NSF or NIH, then the publisher is asking us to pay two more times for taxpayer-funded research.

Q: What is open access and why is it important?

A: Scholars write to be read. This research is life changing. And the more locked up it is, the less impact it can have. We’re advocating for open access because the more people who read your research, the more that knowledge can be applied, built upon or challenged. It’s a win-win. I believe that open access can be truly transformational.

Different open access types are described using a color system. Green open access means that you can post or disseminate your research through a third party freely. One way to do that is the Carolina Digital Repository. Any scholar at this University can post their articles there. The work is indexed and the world can find it.

The second kind is gold open access. With gold, you pay the publisher a fee—anywhere from $70 to $6,000—and your journal article will be open to the world.

The third version of open access is platinum. With platinum, a journal is open for everyone, with zero barriers. You don’t need to pay a fee to publish it open access.

Q: What other options are you looking at?

We are seeking to partner with publishers who are willing to revisit their current models and help the University Libraries create a sustainable system where content is affordable as well as open.  We want to eliminate or reduce the amount of “double dipping” that is taking place.  Finally, we want to work with publishers who value authors’ rights and do not believe that authors must transfer their copyright to them in exchange for publication.

The technology enables us to have a more equitable system that disseminates knowledge quickly, advances humanity and generates revenue for publishers.  This is certainly possible in my lifetime, so why wouldn’t Carolina be a leader?

The business model for publishing has not changed since the 17th century. It should.

October 4, 2019

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. 


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.

Statement from University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks on the UC System’s Termination of Elsevier Subscriptions

May 1, 2019
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

Dear members of the Carolina community: 

On February 28, the University of California (UC) system cancelled their $50 million subscription deal with publishing giant Elsevier and terminated subscriptions to more than 2,500 Elsevier journals.  

This move followed months of negotiation and it has attracted a great deal of attention, for very good reason. Elsevier is the world’s largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals and the UC system is the largest U.S. entity to walk away from so much Elsevier content at once. 

In making this decision, UC helped to expose the runaway journal costs that are breaking university and library budgets everywhere. Moreover, UC tied its negotiations to systemic reform: the need to increase open access to research, rather than locking it behind steep and rising paywalls. 

I support and applaud the UC system for taking this bold step to transform scholarly publishing.  

At Carolina, we soon will have our own decisions to make. Our Elsevier Science Direct subscription—which bundles titles of significance with those of less value to our campus—is set to expire December 31, 2019. Other publisher agreements will soon follow. 

Unless Elsevier and other publishers change their negotiating position, we will face difficult choices. Renewing these packages is unaffordable and unsustainable. Rather than curbing runaway costs, renewing will increase them. If we instead continue only selected subsets of titles, we will face massive cancellations, both now and year after year as costs outpace inflation and budgets. Either option risks perpetuating a broken marketplace that shortchanges the University. 

In recent weeks, I have begun meeting with deans, administrators, academic departments and faculty groups to talk about the true costs of journal access, the paths that are open to us and the broader need to reclaim control of scholarly information from publishers who profit by impeding access to it. My staff and I will continue these important conversations into the fall, sharing updates as we have them, listening carefully to understand the information needs of our community and working toward the best solution for our campus. 

As members of the Carolina community, we are united in our commitment to a university “of the public and for the public.” That spirit motivated the Faculty Council in 2015 to adopt an open access policy designed to “allow the fruits of faculty research and scholarship to be disseminated as widely as possible.” 

Now is a moment for us to determine how best to make good on that commitment. I believe that any publisher agreements we sign must prioritize transparency, affordability and sustainability. And I believe equally that we should chart a path toward more open access, so that the work of Carolina’s researchers can be available to all who benefit from it, and not only those few who can afford it.  

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me or to my colleague, Nerea Llamas, associate University librarian for collections strategy and services, with your questions and concerns. We and members of our team would be pleased to speak with you individually or to meet with you and your colleagues as we move forward. 


Elaine L. Westbrooks 

Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian