When public scholarship hits the paywall

October 15, 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

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. 

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.