Broken Libraries: Even Harvard Can’t Afford Journals Anymore

We are reaching a hard end if even Harvard University’s library is claiming bankruptcy given the prohibitive cost of journals subscriptions.  A memo from the Faculty advisory council says that current practices and journal contracts are fiscally unsustainable, and that the business practices of some journals and journal aggregators are in fact narrowing access to intellectual work and making it impossible for the Harvard library to do business.

Further library news:  I also found out today that Millersville University down the road is more or less closing down for two years during a renovation and will reopen with the bulk of its collection offsite.  I’ve watched with some angst as the New York Public Library warehouses the largest portion of its books.  And this week there was a news story about our local public library’s battle to sponsor a farmer’s market on its grounds so it can stay in business.

The text of the Harvard Advisory Committee memo is below.  Since they are advocating for open access, I’m guessing they won’t mind if I republish it here.  I’d especially point to the activist agenda in the final parts of the memo.  Good words if all of us who care about the open dissemination of knowledge would follow them.

Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing


Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained

  • To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units

From: The Faculty Advisory Council 
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership,  reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.

It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently. Since the Library now must change its subscriptions and since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views

1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).

2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).

3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).

4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).

5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).

6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).

7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).

8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).

9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).

2 thoughts on “Broken Libraries: Even Harvard Can’t Afford Journals Anymore

  1. Dermot McCabe

    Resources like DASH are terrific. I used to buy quite a few technical magazines but gradually ceased doing so because like CD Tracks, only one or two articles in the magazine were of real interest to me. The internet is always my first port of call when I am researching a very specific topic, technical or otherwise.
    There are, however, Journals that deal with fundamental standards and definitions that are expensive but essential references for those engaged in a specific field of study/work..

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      My perception is that it is the sciences and technical fields that publishers have by the neck, but that translates to the rest of us. The increasing cost of subscriptions, even internet subscriptions, cuts resources for all of us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s