The Head of the Harvard Library System is Pissed

Robert Darnton rips into the journal system:

In 2007 I became director of the Harvard University Library, a strategic position from which to take the full measure of the business constraints on academic life. Although economic conditions had worsened, the faculty’s understanding of them had not improved.

How many professors in chemistry can give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a year’s subscription to Tetrahedron (currently $39,082)? Who in medical schools has the foggiest notion of the price of The Journal of Comparative Neurology ($27,465)? What physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3,368), and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)?

Librarians who buy these subscriptions for the use of faculty and students can shower you with statistics. In 2009, Elsevier, the giant publisher of scholarly journals based in the Netherlands, made a $1.1 billion profit in its publishing division, yet 2009 was a disastrous year for library budgets. Harvard’s seventy-three libraries cut their expenditures by more than 10 percent, and other libraries suffered even greater reductions, but the journal publishers were not impressed. Many of them raised their prices by 5 percent and sometimes more. This year, the publishers of the several Nature journals announced that they were increasing the cost of subscriptions for libraries in the University of California by 400 percent. Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science, technology, and medicine recently ran to 30–40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

I’ve a feature coming up in a few weeks about this, among other things, and in my research for it, I discovered that the ire of the librarians about high journal pricing is hard to overstate. This essay in the New York Review of Books (a truly, deeply valuable publication, long may it run) is one of the few prominent pieces I’ve seen expressing that. I’ve a feeling this will get more attention and become a growing issue.

Darnton, by the way, has some harsh things to say about Google, too.

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free.*

This is wonderfully librarianish bile: measured, informed, pointed.


*I’m not sure what Harvard’s fee structure is now, but the library is “free,” of course, only to Harvard community members. When I was working on Reef Madness and had to draw heavily from the holdings there, I had to pay $750/year for borrowing rights, and they weren’t full. I was quite grateful to snag a research associate position — thank you once again, History of Science Department — that gave me full faculty access.

Other disclosures: I sometimes write for journals (and happily cash the checks), including Nature. OTOH, I chafe mightily at paywalls. The COI math is way beyond me.

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