A sustainable future for scholarly communication

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2020. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more! This week’s theme has to do with building the future for Library collections. 

In the 1990s, large publishers began marketing bundles of online journals to libraries at a discount. However, since the year 2000, the cost of journals has outpaced both inflation and library budgets, with publishers justifying increases by adding titles that libraries and faculty often do not want. As a result, a growing percentage of collections expenditures have been going toward keeping a shrinking percentage of desired titles. In spring 2019 UVA University Librarian John Unsworth joined six other Deans and Directors of research libraries at Virginia public doctoral institutions in signing an open letter supporting a decision by the University of California library system not to renew its $11 million-a-year scholarly journal subscription with academic publishing behemoth Elsevier. Since then, more institutions have ended or downsized their financial commitments to big publishers.

The publishers’ refusal to remedy an unsustainable purchasing model that locks research behind a paywall puts them at odds with scholars, who strongly prefer the impact of having their work available for free to anyone online. Even the federal government has signaled its interest in ensuring immediate public access to all taxpayer-funded research.

The seven Virginia institutions agree with their peers in the UC system and elsewhere — they can no longer invest in a broken model, paying faculty to produce scholarship which they then must purchase back from publishers at exorbitant rates. When the letter was written in 2019, several large journal packages consumed about 40 percent of the seven libraries’ collections budgets, affecting their ability to build collections most useful to scholarly communities. By 2025, if nothing changes, Elsevier alone is expected to take up 22.7 percent of UVA’s collections budget.

UVA is among the institutions pushing back with an array of tools and services that provide legal access to research at a reasonable cost. Libraries can negotiate for access to past issues after a subscription is cancelled and can purchase individual articles when researchers need instant access. Improved Interlibrary Loan technology makes loans faster and cheaper, and new end- user tools like OAButton can locate free, legal versions of online articles — more than 50 percent of the articles researchers actually read, (that proportion will grow to 70 percent by 2024). Several libraries have realized substantial savings by replacing “Big Deal” bundled subscriptions with subscriptions only to journal titles regularly used by researchers. Read more about Sustainable Scholarship at UVA. 

Finally, universities themselves are becoming open access publishers. UVA Library’s open access press, Aperio (https://aperio.press/), publishes two open access scholarly journals and recently published four open access books: “The Public Domain Song Anthology,” in collaboration with the Music Library Association, and three others with the UVA Press. There is no doubt that publishing vendors like Elsevier will continue to exist, because they own prestigious subscription-only titles such as “Nature” and “Science.” And some commercial publishers do offer open access options for authors who can afford the hefty fees for publication. But it will be the independent, open access publishing efforts like Aperio that point the way to a sustainable, affordable future for scholarly publication.

Comments are closed.