March 25, 2017

Crisis, Paralysis, and Progress | Peer to Peer Review

Kevin L. SmithThe library community has been talking about a “journal pricing crisis” for over two decades. It is fair to wonder how long something can be a crisis and when we should just acknowledge that it has become the status quo.

It is not quite accurate to say that academic libraries have been paralyzed in the face of massively escalating costs from commercial publishers. All of us have engaged, out of necessity, in cancellations and cutbacks, although the impact of those cancellations on our budgets has been minimal. Publishers have just raised prices elsewhere and implemented new purchase models that have absorbed an ever-growing portion of our collection budgets. Monographs purchases have been curtailed and services constrained as we pour more and more money into the maw of commercial journal publishing.

What we have not seen so far is any kind of concerted effort to break through this cycle. One reason for this has been fear of antitrust laws. Libraries almost certainly cannot organize boycotts of the worst offenders among academic publishers, although individual libraries are free to cancel packages and to explain their motivations publicly. In this regard it is interesting, however, to see that many of the faculty we serve are not so constrained. The multiple boycotts of Elsevier by authors and reviewers, the law professors who have announced their intention to boycott Aspen casebooks, and the faculties that have supported library decisions to cancel “big deals” all indicate that faculty authors are as fed up as librarians and more willing, perhaps, to act aggressively.

Two growing movements—the push toward open access and the growth of library publishing programs—make me think that we may be reaching a tipping point. The open access movement, which has grown right alongside but largely independent of the journal crisis language, is not really about directly undermining commercial subscription. It has the far more important goal of raising the awareness of authors that they own a valuable asset in the copyrights to their works and that they can and should manage that asset to their best advantage. This realization is a necessary but not sufficient condition for breaking the stranglehold that commercial publishing has on academia.

The second phase of a real revolution in scholarly communications is the movement of library resources from the consumption side of scholarship to the production end. Libraries have begun this shift by making publishing services part of the value they provide to their campuses. Open access—more responsible copyright management—is now often accomplished through library-supported repositories, online journals, data curation services, and digital collections. In all of these activities, libraries are beginning the process of moving resources toward directly producing and disseminating scholarly resources, recognizing that this movement offers a better return on investment than more traditional ways of spending our money.

Slowly the movement toward library-based publishing is gathering steam. The recently organized Library Publishing Coalition just held its first forum, at which incipient and well-developed library publishing efforts could exchange ideas and information. But another big step has been taken toward coordination of library publishing—or, to be more accurate, toward the shift of resources toward the noncommercial production of scholarly resources, by a proposal described recently in Inside Higher Education.

In a white paper released [in April], library administrators Rebecca R. Kennison and Lisa R. Norberg describe the need for “deep structural changes” in the systems through which scholarship is created and communicated. I honestly do not know if their proposal is the one that will trigger these changes, but I know that they are pointing us in the right direction. A dramatic reorienting of our spending toward the production of scholarship, which they propose to accomplish through widely distributed contributions to a shared fund and competitive grants awarded to support new experiments and reform older models, is what is needed.

I have been saying for a while, to anyone who will listen, that libraries need to find ways to reconfigure how we spend our money to align more closely with our stated priorities. As we move to support the production side of scholarship, we should favor nonprofit and university-based entities and recognize that more access represents greater value for the money we spend. This means that a great deal less of our funds should be directed to commercial publishers, wedded as they are to artificial scarcity and ever-higher prices.

I will let the white paper speak for itself. While it may be that many would prefer a more gradual transition, Kennison and Norberg have presented us with a challenge and a pathway for a kind of reimagining that is key to our future success.

But there is one aspect of the Inside Higher Education article that I want to address. In the article describing the proposal, John Tagler, vice president of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), is quoted as complaining that he does not see a role for commercial publishers in the plan. He laments that it does not acknowledge the long history that such publishers have in innovation and collaboration and says that the proposal doesn’t offer “a new approach or a new sort of concept.”

There is a lot that is truly amazing in that complaint. It is quite true that there is no explicit place for commercial publishers in this plan, and that is part of why it is genuinely a new concept and an appealing one. Commercial publishers would not be privileged or excluded from developing new models for scholarly communications and making proposals for funding. But a key feature of this or any new approach, in my opinion, would be breaking the monopoly that this small group of commercial presses has by virtue of their demand for complete copyright transfer. Any new model that can be sustainable and beneficial to academia must insist that that monopoly model be abandoned.

As for the assertion that publishers have modeled collaboration, I must point out that the AAP is helping to finance the copyright infringement litigation brought against Georgia State University alleging infringement in educational uses of scholarship intended for education. The AAP was instrumental is setting up the lawsuit, convincing potential plaintiffs, and shopping for the right defendant. This is not collaborative at all, and it is the result of the long-standing error of transferring copyright in scholarship into nonacademic hands. The best effect this lawsuit is likely to have is to make the case that members of the AAP cannot be trusted partners in the reshaping of scholarly communications.

Of course, if Tagler really wants to convince us that the opposite is true, there is still time to withdraw the lawsuit before a ruling from the Eleventh Circuit (at least, as I write this). If collaboration is the goal, let’s start by collaborating over a fair and usable definition of fair use. From there, we can move on to reforming the production and distribution of scholarship, although that latter movement is already well under way, and the AAP is quite likely to miss its chance to get on board.

Kevin L. Smith About Kevin L. Smith

As Duke University’s first Director of Scholarly Communications, Kevin Smith’s ( principal role is to teach and advise faculty, administrators and students about copyright,intellectual property licensing and scholarly publishing. He is a librarian and an attorney (admitted to the bar in Ohio and North Carolina) and also holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University. Smith serves on Duke’s Intellectual Property Board, Digital Futures Task Force and Open Access Advisory Panel. He is also currently the vice chair of the ACRL’s Scholarly Communications Committee. His highly-regarded blog on scholarly communications discusses copyright and publication in academia, and he is a frequent speaker on those topics.

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