March 22, 2018

Open Excess | Peer to Peer Review

Another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. At my library we are going to have to find ways to patch a big hole in our budget caused by two expensive journal packages – SAGE and ACS Journals – jumping in price yet again. This happens usually without warning in the middle of an academic year, and generally the messages sent to inform us end with an upbeat message about the new journals that are included in the package, new journals that we don’t want and most likely will never use.

But it seems we have no real choice. SAGE has become an essential source of research articles for our social sciences departments, and the chemists need access to their society’s journals to do their research-and, of course ACS has the nice racket that department reputation (they don’t call it accreditation) depends on subscribing to the database and the journals they publish. I’m curious about what might happen if (when?) these two behemoths eventually gobble all of our budget and then, when the inevitable increases roll in, the social scientists and chemists duke it out to determine which package we keep. I’d bet on the chemists; they know how to blow things up. But that duel to the death is still a few years away.

Great expectations
When I sent news of the price increase to the chemists, I wasn’t surprised that the department unanimously agreed that they need the entire package, including the pre-1996 archive, but it did remind me that until fairly recently we didn’t even subscribe to the flagship Journal of the American Chemical Society. Everyone understood that we simply couldn’t afford it. Instead, one of the chemists, a society member who got the journal at about a twentieth of the library price, donated his copies. It was awkward, because the society forbade its members to give copies to the library for some biblical period of time, six or seven years, and eventually the donor said he was fed up with keeping track of the issues. We scrabbled around and found the money somewhere. Fast forward 15 years, and suddenly it’s inconceivable that we would offer a chemistry major without guaranteeing access to every journal the society has ever published or might want to publish.

Perhaps I’ve been a librarian for too long. I remember the days when some books and a selection of core journals sufficed, when our faculty assumed that they would have to visit research libraries if they wanted to do a proper literature review. Libraries at four-year colleges weren’t expected to provide access to everything, just to a well-tempered selection of the most important stuff. That was before the age of excess.

Producing ourselves to death
A couple of things have changed. Faculty today are expected to be much more “productive” than they were 20 years ago, with productivity defined by the number of publications produced annually. Even at a small college with no graduate programs, tenure dossiers are vast and imposing. Essentially, our faculty hold themselves and one another to very nearly the same escalating standards as faculty at research institutions. It’s good for our faculty to be advancing knowledge-but somehow we’re expected to support this shift without any additional funding.

There has been a parallel shift in the library’s sense of purpose. We enable access to information: all information. Publishers have gotten savvy about displaying their wares, and we no longer believe we should serve as gatekeepers. In fact, the very idea that we, rather than our patrons, might make choices from the banquet of possibilities seems like censorship. How dare we interpose ourselves between our patrons and the information they desire? It’s our duty to get them what they want. Lack of funds is no longer an acceptable excuse. If we can’t afford the journal, we should just buy the articles. If we can’t buy books, we should rent them for a few hours. The role of the library is to deliver patrons to the publishers’ shopping mall and pay the bills that come in without complaining or disclosing the cost.

Name names and share the pain
Let’s just remember as we pay those bills what these publishers are doing. Sage is one of three large publishers that are suing us, that want us to pay per student every time a reading is assigned in class, that are striving to turn the copyright clock back to 1976 and erase the pesky bits about fair use. The ACS is one of many corporations lobbying in Washington against open access to federally funded research; an ACS official even called it “socialized science.” (ACS is technically a scholarly society and has the tax-exempt status to prove it, but it walks and talks and pays its executives like a corporation.) It’s true that Sage and ACS publish good stuff, and it’s true that publishing high quality research takes money, but these hungry publishers keep expanding, confident that we’ll foot the bill-both for the results of freely donated and tax-funded research and for the lawyers and lobbyists it hires to attack us. This is not a free market. It’s a protection racket.

Next week is Open Access Week. On Monday, let’s all tell the world how much our ACS and SAGE subscriptions are going up. Tweet it. Post it to Facebook. Get the word out. We’re being gouged.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller