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Price increases for digital academic journals leads to subscription cancellations

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Students, professors and administrators bear the brunt as increasing costs take a larger chunk of stagnant or declining university budgets — but the burden is perhaps heaviest for college librarians.

At the public SUNY system, state support for campuses has remained stable because of a 2011 agreement between SUNY administrators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. If an agreement between legislative leaders and Mr. Cuomo holds, the system will have an $8.84 billion budget in the 2013-14 fiscal year, beginning April 1 — a $161 million or 1.8 percent increase from the $8.68 billion 2012-13 level The agreement came after four straight years of deep cuts, costing the system $700 million of funding.

At the same time, librarians have struggled to keep up with the cost of academic journals, whose subscription price increases, at 5 to 10 percent, outpace the rate of inflation, while their budgets have remained flat.

“Our budget has to also come from tuition. Our state budget allotment is not large,” said Jenica P. Rogers, SUNY Potsdam librarian. “A large portion of our operating budget comes from tuition — but tuition increases can’t keep up with our expenses.”

A PROMISE UNDELIVERED

The Internet promised a revolution in information sharing: more research was supposed to be disseminated inexpensively between university campuses and academic writers.

At first, the promise was delivered on. Publishers started scanning and uploading their academic journals online, combining them into electronic databases where research papers could be read, studied and cited.

“As libraries transferred to online resources from print resources, the pricing models changed and in fact our users and our administrators and folks financing operations thought things might be cheaper,” said Michelle L. Young, director of libraries at Clarkson University, Potsdam.

However, in recent years, the steady inflation of academic journal subscription prices has begun anew, leading some campus libraries to reduce their subscriptions and a movement of researchers and students to call for the free and open sharing of academic work.

“I think they charge more mainly because they can,” said Martin A. Walker, SUNY Potsdam chemistry professor. “If you become indispensable, then you can charge more for your product.”

Part of the problem is consolidation in the academic publishing business. Three large publishing houses, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, account for more than 40 percent of all academic articles published.

The virtual monopoly allows the companies to dictate how journals are packaged and sold.

“Originally, they did online journals a la carte. Now it has transitioned into packages, like cable TV,” Ms. Young said. “You have to pay for channels you might not even like. It is like DirectTV with journals.”

SUNY POTSDAM CUTS BACK

At SUNY Potsdam this year, librarians have canceled a package of journal subscriptions offered by the American Chemical Society.

“It was going to cost significantly more. It was a significant increase between 8 and 12 percent. That was on top of having those same increases happen year after year,” said SUNY Potsdam’s Ms. Rogers. “We simply couldn’t sustain it. A library of our size doesn’t have the funding to do that.”

The increasing price of electronic journals has caused SUNY Potsdam’s library to divert resources from other expenses.

“We have seriously reduced our print subscription, but at the same time we have almost exponentially increased what’s available online,” Ms. Rogers said.

Systemwide, SUNY campuses are cutting back on some services in the library in favor of the journals, which are essential for scholarly research, Ms. Rogers said.

“It is always hard. All of the SUNY institutions have to think about how we’re going to get by in a given year, because there is a lot more out there than what we can afford. We all have wish lists, things we simply can’t afford.”

The full impacts of the cancellation won’t be known until after the spring semester, when chemistry professors concentrate on research.

“This summer, when I would ordinarily do the bulk of my literature work for research, that is when I expect to run into more problems,” said Mr. Walker, the chemistry professor. “I imagine I will have a lot of articles from ACS journals that I would like to be able to read.”

PRIVATE SCHOOLS, PUBLIC PROBLEMS

SUNY Potsdam isn’t alone in its troubles. Last year, the well-endowed Harvard University library system announced it no longer could afford the increasing burden of journal subscriptions and asked for the school’s researchers to publish their work for free.

At Clarkson University, librarians fight to balance demand for access to prestigious online journals while maintaining a collection of books in print and keeping up with changing technology, Ms. Young said.

“Over time, our book budget went down. Now for books I use grants and endowments,” she said. “I don’t have them in my regular budget. To continue to keep electronic journals, we had to suck away all the money from our book budget.”

Not all digital journals are raising prices at the same rate. Subjects that have a large, lucrative industry relying on cutting-edge research tend to have the most expensive journals. In chemistry’s case, the pharmaceutical industry is keeping prices high.

“In certain other areas of science, notably some areas of mathematics, particle physics and also astronomy as well as some areas of medicine and biology, the idea of open access journals has become the norm and many of the most prestigious journals are open access in some of those fields,” Mr. Walker said.

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING METHODS

The rising cost of academic research has led some to call for changes to what they consider an outdated publication model. To further that conversation, Mr. Walker has organized a panel discussion as part of SUNY Potsdam’s triennial academic festival.

“I think we’re at a very interesting time where we still use essentially a 19th century model of scientific publishing and we haven’t yet adapted to all the consequences of the Internet revolution, so this panel discussion is really going to explore how things may change,” he said.

Some complain that they have to pay twice for research funded by public dollars — once with their taxes, and again to pay the publisher for access to the research.

The Obama administration responded to that complaint earlier this year in a memorandum asking federal agencies that fund research to write plans to make all peer-reviewed articles and data from their research available to the public.

“If the federal government were to mandate that if your research is federally funded, it would have to be made open access, we wouldn’t have to pay publishers to get access to that info because it would be in a federal repository or it would be in free online journals or any one of many free open sources that people are just beginning to explore,” Ms. Rogers said.

A CANDLE IN THE WILDERNESS

That has led to a groundswell of support for the Open Access movement. The movement calls for the free dissemination of scientific research, and has a growing following on the campus of St. Lawrence University, Canton.

Nathan K. Rotich, a St. Lawrence University economics student, said the Thelomathesian Society, the school’s student government, will consider a resolution to request any research published by the school’s students or faculty be made available through open access journals.

“We would like to see researchers at St. Lawrence University adopt an open access policy,” he said. “Allowing information to move freely is important for both education and for scientific advancement. It would be just another example of the school ‘lighting a candle in the wilderness.’”

The resolution also would establish a repository for all of the research conducted at the school, allowing easy access for students and faculty on campus.

Mr. Rotich, a Kenya native, said the pricing of academic journals and articles by publishers in first-world countries like the United States is prohibitive for universities in the developing world.

“In the developing world, entire universities might not have the budget of one of our libraries,” he said. “It isn’t fair to them. Their students and scientists are placed at a greater disadvantage because of these costs.”

AN ALTERNATE MODEL EMERGES

Under one open access plan, instead of paying for subscriptions to scholarly journals, research institutions would pay to publish in the most prestigious journals.

The model is already at work, but thus far the open access journals lack the prestige of their older, larger subscription-model progenitors, Mr. Walker said.

“There has been an upsurge of interest in open access journals, but there’s a problem, namely that promotion and tenure in academia is dependent on publication in prestigious journals,” he said. “Open access journals are mostly new and lack the prestige of older, traditional journals.”

Thanks to Internet search engines such as Google, that may be changing. On some search engines, users are restricted from seeing subscription-model articles by a pay wall that requests a password or credit card information before making the article available. Other search engines, like Google, ignore subscription model articles.

“The real benefit of open access can be that your work is more visible,” Mr. Walker said. “Open access articles are more likely to be read because they are found in Google searches and the like, so if you have two journals of equal prestige, the open access one will be more widely read because of ease of access. The article is more likely to be cited in future work. That in turn raises the prestige of the open access journals.”

CHANGING THE TRADITION

Mr. Walker said the research model itself is due to be changed. Currently, academics might spend months researching the background for their work, and a relatively short amount of time performing actual experiments or recording new data; afterwards, it may take years of writing and editing to bring an academic paper to publication, far too slow for the digitally driven information world.

“Basing our whole system of tenure and promotion and scientific reputation on a rather quaint, old-fashioned system of scientific papers, that whole system needs to be revised,” he said. “If publishers don’t adapt, they may well suffer catastrophically at some point. In the process I’ve compared it to Kodak.”

Librarians, often seen as stalwarts of the print world, tend to agree, Ms. Rogers said.

“I think that academics and scientific publishers are struggling right now just as the recording industry and the movie industry are struggling,” Ms. Rogers said. “They are trying very hard to preserve an older business model and I’m not sure that is going to work.”

Relying on print publishing timelines and techniques hampers scientific progress, Mr. Walker said.

The panel discussion, on “The Future of Publishing,” will be held at 11 a.m. April 12 in Kellas Hall, Room 103, on the SUNY Potsdam campus.

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