Harvard Library tells faculty to take open access seriously

Harvard Library’s Faculty Advisory Council has issued a memo telling Harvard faculty: Really, take journal prices seriously, our library can’t afford to keep paying for the journals whose content is provided in part by our faculty.

Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing: Major Periodical Subscriptions Cannot Be Sustained. (Thanks to Boing Boing for the alert).

They give a list of 9 suggested actions faculty — as the ones providing the ‘surplus value’ (my phrase not theirs, heh) for the academic journal market — , as well as libraries, can take to change the market and return it to affordability. Including various forms of:

  • Publish open access, try to get more journals to publish open access.
  • Raise these issues with publishers and encourage professional societies to raise these issues.
  • Encourage professional societies to publish their own journals. [Interestingly, there are at least some instances of professional-society-published journals with just as unsustainable costs to libraries as for-profit journals, so I’m not sure how much this will work. But at least non-profit professional societies are at least theoretically controlled by their members, who have an interest in libraries being able to afford their work.
  • “Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system”

Per-use charging and the pendulum of cyclical change

That last one is interesting. I know that in the dawn of electronic content platforms for libraries, libraries often did pay per-use — sometimes even per-search (as in the “Dialog” product).

It’s my understanding that the shift from per-use charges to flat charges was actually pushed by libraries (can anyone around then confirm this?).  For reasons of financial sustainability, and not having to meter our patrons. And at the time, “things on the internet” were generally flat rate, it was how people started thinking things were ‘supposed’ to be.

It’s interesting to see the pendulum swinging the other way, and libraries wanting to go back to use-based/per-use charges. Harvard is recommending it for scholarly journal content.

I previously mused a bit about two other places we’re seeing a battle over per-use charges.


Ebook publishers are currently trying to make sure ebooks can’t be purchased once and then loaned an unlimited amount of times, but instead charged per-use (at close to retail price), even for libraries.  Libraries are of course resistant to this. 

Eric Lease Morgan suggests that per-use charges for ebooks are likely the only sustainable model possible. (I can’t find the blog cite now, but I remember reading a lengthy post by him on ebook markets with this conclusion).

On the other hand, a countering example, we have the “gorilla in the room” Amazon introducing their own flat rate ebook library — flat rate for individual consumers, not available for libraries to license affordably for their patron community, and enforcing a “one at a time” restriction analagous to netflix’s physical DVD model (but interestingly not so much Amazon’s streaming model!).

scholarly articles

Meanwhile, David Walker pointed out to me that the Copyright Clearance Center’s “Get It Now” service , which charges per-download for particulating publisher content, could be considered not just as an alternative to ILL, but as an alternative for libraries to flat rate “platform” licensing for scholarly content.

If Harvard wants per-use pricing for scholarly content, I wonder if they’re considering trying to cancel subscriptions to ‘platforms’ that are covered by CCC, and paying per-use for CCC materials?  On the other hand, this would be difficult to do, since many platforms these days (the best example being EBSCO) will not let you license individual titles “a la carte”, but insist you license an entire package — while making sure certain titles are only available from, say,  EBSCO.   Which is why one of the Harvard memo’s recommendations is also “Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals.”  I wonder if EBSCO exclusivity contracts with publishers prevent them from making content available via CCC too?  I doubt it at the moment, but it’s interesting to see EBSCO and CCC’s interests as cross-purposes, with publisher’s trying to figure out what they’re interests are.

And then, as I pointed out previously, there’s deepdyve, which is trying to charge individual scholars per-use for access to scholarly articles that they don’t have institutional access to.

Market in flux, pendulum shifting?

Everything’s in flux, markets are rearranging. But I think I sense a general swing of the pendulum back to per-use fees, interestingly sometimes this is what libraries want and sometimes it’s what libraries resist, and some for publishers and aggregators.

In general, per-use charging, just like flat rate charging, may or may not be sustainable for library customers, it of course depends on the pricing.

But one downside of metered pricing either way is that it can lead to libraries (whether public or academic) neccesarily metering the usage of their patrons to keep things affordable, returning us to the days of Dialog where patrons need to be careful in their research to ration their electronic content use.  Except the difference from the days of Dialog, is that Google isn’t metered, and scholars and patrons can continue to abandon us for Google, even if it’s doesn’t provide them with everything we could; if it’s easier to use, if it’s not metered and we are, it’ll “satisfice“.


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