Advocating for Change in an Unsustainable and Inequitable Journal Publishing Market

by DeDe Dawson
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

I’ve been thinking a lot about how librarians can most effectively support researchers in their scholarly communications activities and bring about meaningful change in a largely dysfunctional academic journal market.

In a recent planning meeting at my library, the topic of advocacy for open access (OA) came up. It has always seemed to me to be a natural role for academic librarians. We know the underlying issues better than most, and have the professional responsibility to raise the awareness of these issues among our faculty colleagues on campus. Indeed, librarians at many institutions have led the way in advocating for OA for more than a decade now. And much progress has been made: OA is quickly becoming the default (for journal articles at least) and there is no going back – especially now that major national funders are mandating it.

So, do we really need more advocacy for OA?

OA now seems to have a life of its own. We no longer need to advocate for it so much as support the researchers at our institutions in complying with the mandates of their funders to make their research outputs (publications and data) openly available. There are many practical tools and resources that librarians can introduce researchers to that will help them in this. And of course there are still many persistent myths and misinformation about OA that need to be countered. Roles for librarians abound! So, awareness-raising and practical support for compliance – but what of advocacy?

Lately, I am coming to the conclusion that our advocacy efforts need to be redirected to pushing for more fundamental changes in the journal publishing market. Let me explain:

Academic librarians have always been some of the strongest proponents of OA simply because we can clearly see the unsustainability, and inequity, in the current commercial journal market better than our any of our campus colleagues.

The system is unsustainable:

Publishers have increased subscription fees beyond inflation for decades, and make “obscene” profits from selling research papers produced by faculty at our institutions back to us. Library budgets have not grown at the same rate as journal subscription increases. For many years librarians have been able to maintain these subscriptions by reducing expenses in other areas and cutting spending on monographs – but this can only go on for so long. To make an unsustainable system even worse, many commercial publishers are now co-opting OA for their own financial gain. With “hybrid” journals, publishers charge authors high article processing charges (APCs) to make their individual papers OA, and yet continue to charge libraries subscription fees to that same journal (i.e. “double-dipping”). Publishers have essentially found a lucrative additional revenue stream in OA – this is not the outcome that the original proponents of OA had in mind! Currently our low Canadian dollar makes this unsustainable system even worse (since most subscriptions are paid in U.S. dollars). Libraries are at the breaking point.
The system is inequitable:

This is also an ethical problem. Much of the research locked up behind commercial publisher paywalls is taxpayer funded, yet taxpayers cannot read the results without paying again. Taxpayers also largely fund the salaries of university faculty who peer-review and serve on editorial boards of these journals. The publishers generally do not pay these individuals for their services, nor do they pay the authors of the papers. To be blunt: commercial scholarly journal publishing is a racket. The tax paying public loses, practitioners and patients lose, independent researchers and journalists lose, academics in developing countries lose, scholars and students at poorer institutions lose, and now those at even the richest institutions are losing too. I could go on.

So, returning to the advocacy piece…

I believe we now need to advocate for more radical change in the entire scholarly publishing market. Imagine the millions of dollars per year that each institution could save if they could cancel all of these subscriptions. A portion of this money could be redirected to support innovative new OA publishing models, or simply support scholarly societies to take back their flagship journals from the commercial publishers (e.g. Cultural Anthropology). And the rest could be redirected to support research and student scholarships, or many other worthy needs on campus.

I’m not naïve. I realize this is not a straightforward task. But it is essential to the future of higher education and research institutions. And there are innovations already taking place (I list some below), but the key in this equation is outreach to researchers. They are the authors, the reviewers, the editors. They are the colleagues that sit on tenure and promotion committees. They are also often in administrative roles at universities. They have the real power to effect change. But, they are generally unaware of the full extent of the dysfunction in the system. Librarians have an opportunity, and a professional obligation, to raise their awareness on these issues, and advocate and support them in changing it to more sustainable and equitable OA models.

A few examples of innovative models of scholarly OA journal publishing:
SCOAP³
PeerJ
Overlay journals
Open Library of the Humanities
Open Access Network

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

One thought on “Advocating for Change in an Unsustainable and Inequitable Journal Publishing Market

  1. Seconded… This is what we need to do to make change happen. Would especially highlight the importance of educating tenure and promotion committees and working at the policy level to embed rewards for OA publishing.

Leave a Reply to Margy MacMillan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *