Universities unsubscribe from academic journals, impacts access to research

Lydia Woolley

Early this month, University of California schools walked away from subscription negotiations with Elsevier, a premier research publisher. Last year, UC paid $11million for access to its journals. The university’s attempt to transition spending from journal subscriptions to open access publishing is part of a national trend.

David Banush, dean of libraries and academic information resources, recognizes this trend and Tulane’s potential place in perpetuating it.

“I think the library is actually in a good position, particularly now, to begin working on this,” Banush said. “We here at Tulane have been working with Elsevier and other publishers to reign in our costs … I think we’re going to have to be a little more aggressive about that.”

The main problem that UC and Banush have with journals like Elsevier is their lopsided business model.

After academics publish their research, often funded by grants, their universities pay for access to the journals in which the research is published. Ultimately, the universities pay the researcher, pay to assist the research, and pay to access the research. Elsevier profits off both university spending and academic labor, a system that provides it with a 35 percent profit margin.

Banush believes that the current system is unsustainable, but explains that encouraging publication in open access journals may just shift the costs to researchers, rather than eliminate them.

“There will just be fewer places for them to publish and it will become harder to publish,” Banush said. “[Academic publishers’] argument to the library is your faculty is using these, your students are using these, and if you take this away, you’re going to harm them … you don’t want to hurt anybody. And we don’t, of course. We want to help people.”

As for ending Tulane’s more expensive journal subscriptions or pushing for open access publishing, “We would have to do a lot of talking with a lot of faculty before we would get to that point,” Banush said.

Michael Moore, associate professor of biomedical engineering, is not sure that faculty members are interested in pushing for such a change.

“If we are really going to move in this direction, I think it’s going to probably be because there’s some kind of a grassroots effort,” Moore said. “And to be honest, I don’t have a strong blanket opinion on whether everything should be open access or whether it shouldn’t … I think there are a lot of considerations that really do need to be thought of.”

He said, however, that if article processing charges were a non-issue, he believes open access would be the most ideal form of publication for researchers, taxpayers and society at large.

“Number one, a lot of the research that’s done is publicly funded so it does make sense that it would be publicly available,” Moore said. “Also it just, as a researcher, I want as many people to read my work as possible … the idea of society being able to benefit from that, I think there’s something very appealing about that as well.”

Shifting from Elsevier to open access publishing, however, does not have the same costs and benefits in all fields. Cheryl Naruse, assistant professor of English, is aware of reputable journals’ necessity to junior researchers and the lack of reputable humanities journals that offer open access publishing.

“Open access [is] almost always associated with web platforms … those web publications, generally speaking, are not seen as seriously in terms of tenure processes and things like that,” Naruse said.

Given that publishing within this hierarchy affects promotion and tenure, Naruse said that if Tulane were to shift toward open access publishing, it would have to come from the top.

“When you’re pre-tenure, you’re often not the person that’s going to be like ‘I’m going to change things,’ because it’s like your job is at risk,” Naruse said. “So you actually need someone sort of further along to change things. But even then, I’m not sure that really happens too easily.”

Perhaps, then, an abrupt change of publishing methods is not in Tulane’s near future. Banush recognizes, however, that publishing reform is more feasible in the wake of UC and Elsevier’s split, and he looks forward to exploring all options.

“In the next month or so, I hope we will be having some more sessions for our faculty that talk more specifically about the UC situation and how it might or might not apply at Tulane and the steps that we can take here to, at the very least, reduce the cost of our subscriptions and also to make more of our research available through open access,” Banush said.

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