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Faculty Senate approves resolution regarding pricey journals
Stanford librarian hopes the move will convince other universities to cancel subscriptions, leading to industry reforms


The Faculty Senate endorsed the latest attempt by the university's library system to take a stand against for-profit journal publishers that it says engage in exorbitant pricing practices.

The senate last week approved a motion on a divided voice vote that encourages libraries to cancel some costly journal subscriptions and faculty to withhold articles and reviews from publishers who engage in questionable pricing practices. The motion singled out publishing giant Elsevier as deserving special attention.

"We're not doing this to position ourselves to negotiate more effectively with Elsevier," said University Librarian Michael Keller. "We're doing this to change the whole scene. We're trying to change the fundamental nature of scholarly communication in the journal industry."

Journal costs have skyrocketed in recent years while many university library budgets have shrunk, putting librarians in the uncomfortable position of having to reduce or cancel subscriptions to some journals valued by academics. At the same time, some for-profit publishers, like Elsevier, started grouping popular journals together with less-desirable ones in "big deal" subscription plans at higher prices, knowing most libraries would go along with the ploy, Keller said.

A spokesman for Elsevier declined to comment, saying the company had not had a chance to review the resolution.

Many universities, including Harvard, Cornell and the University of California, have publicly complained about Elsevier's pricing tactics and have managed to negotiate better rates by threatening to pull their business. But Stanford libraries, as a whole, have fewer contracts with Elsevier than most universities because of a bold step taken in 1995 to move away from for-profit publishing.

Stanford founded HighWire Press in 1995 as a way to electronically disseminate scientific journals and to serve as a repository where scholars and nonprofit publishers could store their work for easy public access. The award-winning enterprise, a division of Stanford University Libraries, has since grown to become a leader in the nonprofit publishing arena; it produces nearly half of the 200 most frequently cited science journals.

However, Stanford Libraries still subscribes to 400 popular Elsevier titles at a cost of just under $1 million per year. The amount doesn't seem particularly high until you consider that the libraries spend approximately $6 million on 23,000 journals annually and nearly 20 percent of the budget is spent on Elsevier titles that account for about 1 percent of the subscriptions.

Lane Medical Library has a similar relationship with Elsevier; it spends about 20 percent of its budget on about 300 titles annually, according to library director Debra Ketchell. The library does not fall under the purview of Stanford Libraries, but Ketchell said she supports the senate motion and would continue the library's annual practice of re-evaluating the journal subscription list based on price increases and budgetary concerns.

She emphasized that Elsevier is not alone in the practice of high-price bundling but said that Lane Library has done a good job of negotiating with the Dutch company for journals that are in high demand.

"As we move into the future and need to reduce those journals that we already have in bundles, then we're going to face hard decisions," Ketchell said. "There are different opinions among the faculty. The resolution is good because it supports us in taking a cost-effective, realistic view of how we license and what we license."

Although most university libraries will likely re-evaluate and scrutinize current and future Elsevier contacts in light of the senate motion, it remains to be seen what kind of impact the nonbinding resolution will have on faculty. The resolution asked faculty, especially senior faculty, to withhold articles and reviews from journals and publishers "that engage in exploitative or exorbitant pricing" in favor of other outlets, preferably nonprofit ones.

Joanne Martin, business, voted against the motion at the senate meeting because of concerns about losing access to some Elsevier journals. "We absolutely need the top-tier journals, which are very expensive, in order to keep up with our field," Martin said. "And if the library doesn't have them, the junior faculty and doctoral students in particular are very concerned that they will have no other alternative than to pay for an individual subscription, which they just can't afford to do."

Keller assured Martin that schools and departments, as a matter of routine, ask faculty to weigh in on which subscriptions are canceled and which are kept. He also reminded Martin that the library offers a document delivery service that can retrieve items from journals the university doesn't subscribe to, typically within a few days.

"The university's faculty and the research personnel and the graduate and undergraduate students are going to have to understand and be somewhat tolerant of some access problems," Keller said. "There might be some delayed access to things they really need to have."

Robert Simoni, biological sciences, a HighWire adviser who was instrumental in its creation, has poured considerable energy into encouraging his colleagues to avoid Elsevier publications in the hope of shifting the industry away from for-profits. He said many academics in life sciences, for example, would resist boycotts of an Elsevier journal as prestigious as Cell but that over time it would be more beneficial to do so.

"I think it's going to take a long time for its prestige and cachet to wear out," Simoni said. "There are still so many people who think publishing in Cell is going to make their career that they'll still get submissions. But if institutions like Stanford and others stop subscribing to journals like Cell, authors will eventually realize that their work is not being seen. This is an evolutionary change and it will take time."

Keller said he hopes that other universities will follow Stanford's lead in rejecting expensive bundling practices from publishers, even if it means rejecting the journals themselves.

"This has given us a message to send to a whole bunch of other institutions around the country," Keller said. "It's really important to see that we didn't buy into the 'must-read' argument from Elsevier and yet we continue to be a great research institution with a relatively lean list of periodicals. It's amazing, and it's a great tribute to this place."