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. 

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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.

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. 

Sincerely, 

Elaine L. Westbrooks 

Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian