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  • The Open Access Debate
  • Eyal Amiran (bio)

On October 18–20, 2009, librarians and publishers fought another round in the ongoing open access (OA) debate, which the Chronicle continues to cover. The opening shot—but it is already a reply—was fired by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, when it declared October 19–23, 2009 to be “Open Access Week.”1

Open Access is the name of the idea that the public and universities should not pay publishers for something—usually scholarly journals, though now books are on the radar as well—they have already paid to produce. In principle, universities pay professors to write scholarly books and articles, and it pays other professors to review and edit them, but publishers then collect subscriptions to produce these journals and sell them back to the universities. Instead of buying the work back again, goes the argument, journals should be free and distributed online. Proponents, mainly authors and universities, think journals might not survive if libraries have to pay for them twice, once via the university to produce them, the second time to subscribe. This is particularly the case with science journals, which often cost many times more than do humanities journals. While the costs of humanities and social science journals have been increasingly a concern for research libraries, price increases in the sciences have led to a crisis in library subscriptions. This has been a topic of concern now for over two decades and has led to a boycott of science publisher Elsevier in 2003, among others (Albanese 2004). Now that electronic publishing has gained widespread acceptance, both in the academy and in society at large, the time seems at hand for the end of publisher monopolies.

The University of California system, for example, is considering a boycott of the Nature Publishing Group, which publishes the prestigious Nature and 66 other journals, because NPG has announced their subscription price will rise by 400% beginning 2011. In a letter dated June 4, 2010, signees including [End Page 251] Laine Farley, Executive Director of the California Digital Library (CDL), see NPG’s proposed increase in the context of—we can say, as a response to—the UC system’s success in cutting costs through electronic delivery:

CDL has worked successfully with many other publishers and content providers over the past year to address the University’s current economic challenges in a spirit of mutual problem solving, with positive results including lowering our overall costs for electronic journals by $1 million dollars per year.

NPG by contrast has been singularly unresponsive to the plight of libraries and has employed a “divide and conquer” strategy that directs major price increases to various institutions in different years. Their proposed new license fee is especially difficult to accept in a time of shrinking UC library budgets and with the many sacrifices we all continue to make Systemwide. Capitulating to NPG now would wipe out all of the recent cost-saving measures taken by CDL and our campus libraries to reduce expenditures for electronic journals.

(Farley, Schneider, and Schottlaender 2010, para. 2–3)

If NPG does not relent, writes Farley, his office would encourage UC faculty to resign from NPG journals and to refuse to peer-review for them. This strong request, or threat, recognizes the role of universities in producing work that universities must then purchase from publishers. Open Access electronic distribution that bypasses costly publishers like NPG could save not only journals but, to take the thought to its conclusion, libraries themselves, which cannot afford to subscribe to costly journals but also cannot afford not to.

By and large, professors who do the scholarly work of journals also support a move to open access journal publishing, at least in principle. David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, is quoted in a recent article on the debate in the Chronicle in support of OA. “I now believe that having public access to most scholarly communications is inevitable,” he said at a 2009 conference on ways libraries can help promote OA. “Faculty are coming to understand, finally, that this has to happen if they’re...


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pp. 251-260
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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