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Harvard panel pushes benefits of free journals

Costly publications targeted

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / April 28, 2012
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Harvard may be the world’s wealthiest university, but fees for its academic journal subscriptions have gotten so steep - some as much as $40,000 a year - that an advisory council is encouraging faculty to submit their work to “open access’’ online journals that are available for free.

The council also asked Harvard faculty to consider resigning from the editorial boards of the high-priced subscription publications and to urge professional associations to “take control’’ of scholarly literature in their fields.

In a memo sent to faculty last week, the council called the rising prices of journals, which connect researchers with cutting-edge ideas and findings, “untenable,’’ “fiscally unsustainable,’’ and “academically restrictive.’’ It is a sentiment being aired by scholars and universities around the world as academic libraries struggle with rising costs.

“The escalation is simply spectacular and it’s inflicting serious damage,’’ said Robert Darnton, a university professor and chairman of the council. The memo states that in 2010, a fifth of the library’s entire expenditures on subscriptions went to certain unnamed publishers that bundle together journals and raise prices. This year, the memo said, the library is spending about $3.75 million on journals from just those publishers.

The memo does not mention publishers by name, but says that the price of online content from two providers increased by 145 percent during six years, and that journals can cost tens of thousands of dollars each per year.

Darnton said that even when university libraries nationwide have been suffering because of the recession, subscription fees have risen. In 2008 when Harvard library expenditures were cut 10 percent, some journals raised their prices 10 percent, he said. Meanwhile, the memo notes that some publishing houses are making significant profits - as much as 35 percent.

The most visible target of academia’s wrath worldwide has been Elsevier, an Amsterdam-based publisher of scientific and medical journals, that reported an operating profit of $1.12 billion in 2010. More than 10,000 people have signed an online petition vowing not to publish in, or review papers, or do editorial work for its journals, including more than 60 people affiliated with Harvard, ranging from scientists to humanities scholars.

A spokesman for Elsevier, Tom Reller, said in a statement the company had a good relationship with Harvard.

“We do not believe that the facts in the letter which relate to price increases pertain to Elsevier. Elsevier’s average print list price increases have consistently been among the lowest in the industry for the past several years, averaging around 5%,’’ Reller wrote. “In addition, we believe Harvard will continue to see the value in publishing in Elsevier journals, which include a range of access options, and contributing as editors.’’

The issue is also a hot topic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where at least 45 researchers have signed the petition. A group of MIT faculty formed an Open Access Working Group this spring to examine journals’ responses to the university’s policy that its faculty’s work be made freely available, but it will also likely examine publishers’ pricing practices, said its chairman, philosophy professor Richard Holton. An analysis published online earlier this month by two mathematicians, including one from MIT, reported that between 1986 and 2009, MIT’s spending on journals increased by 426 percent, while the number of journals purchased decreased by 16 percent.

The idea that research should be freely available is easy to support in theory, but it is a transition that will require a shift in how research journals are financed. Rather than billing subscribers to support their work, open-access journals typically ask authors to pay fees to have their work published. Universities such as Harvard and MIT have made funds available so that researchers who want to publish in open access journals will not be deterred.

Still, that payment model concerns Dr. Clifford Saper, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He said that it can cost $1,500 or more to get a paper reviewed, edited, and posted online in the right format. In fields where researchers may be publishing many papers each year, that can add up - and it essentially hands that information to corporations and pharmaceutical companies at the expense of researchers or their institutions.

“This basically takes the cost of disseminating scientific information - it gives industry a free ride,’’ Saper said. “And the people doing science have to work harder to get more grants, so they can afford to publish their papers.’’

But the biggest hurdle to surmount may be the cultural biases built into fields, where a person’s career can depend on getting papers into the very best journals, which are not traditionally the open access ones. A new biomedical research journal, eLife, being launched by top research organizations in three countries - the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society - is an effort to change that, by creating a peer-reviewed journal that is on par with the most elite publications and that is also freely accessible.

“I just know that a lot of the very top biomedical scientists will continue to do what they do, until we can deliver something they see as a viable alternative,’’ said Randy Schekman, editor-in-chief of eLife and a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It is a little bit interesting to see Harvard claiming they don’t have the money,’’ Schekman said. “We really don’t have the money. . . . We’ve been canceling journals all over the place.’’

On Monday, at a faculty meeting at the Harvard School of Public Health, scientists had a thoughtful discussion of the issues that could arise, according to those who attended.

“On the one hand, if it’s just me and where I publish and should I refuse to review articles for a particular journal because it’s predatory, that’s one thing,’’ said Joseph Brain, professor of environmental physiology at the school. “But if my graduate student or post-doc sits down in my office and says, ‘Where should I publish this article,’ there’s really only one answer - and that’s the journal where it will help your career, particularly in these competitive times.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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