Harvard’s library can’t afford journal subscriptions

April 23, 2012

Harvard University is probably the single richest school on the planet. Its endowment in 2011 was the biggest in the USA, at $31.728 billion — over 60% more than the next highest (Yale, at $19.374 billion).

It’s also in with a good shout as the best university in the world — the current Times Higher Education ranking has it equal second, behind only Cal Tech, level with Stanford, and ahead of Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge.

If any university should be able to pay all its journal subscriptions without problems, it’s Harvard.

So this memorandum, published last Tuesday, came as quite a shock:

To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. … Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. …

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … Costs are now prohibitive.

Yes, you read it right.  The world’s richest university can’t afford journal subscriptions.  If anyone ever doubted that subscription prices had run wild, that the academic publishers who control access to the research we generate are out of control, this should dispel any remaining illusions that all is well with the current model.

Happily, the Harvard advisory council does not limit itself to whining, but has concrete suggestions for researchers (and also for the library).  The actions they recommend for researchers on their staff are:

  • Archive all their own papers as Green Open Access.
  • Submit to open-access journals; “move prestige to open access”.
  • Resign from editorial boards of non-OA journals if they won’t convert.
  • Ask professional societies to take control of publishing in their fields.
  • Recruit colleagues to join them in these measures.

The deal here is that Open Access is not a fringe issue any more.  It’s not just something that idealistic young researchers like to shout about.  It’s a major part of the strategy of one — several, actually — of the world’s top universities.  I’d argue that it’s been a moral imperative for a long time.  Now Open Access has become an economic imperative, too.  (Anyone who doubts that it’s much, much cheaper than the subscription model should check out the numbers in my recent article at The Scientist: it seems to come out at about one eighth of the cost.)

For more analysis of Harvard’s public statement, see Harvard: we have a problem at Stephen Curry’s Reciprocal Space, and “No, we can’t” at the Library Loon’s Gavia Libraria.  (The latter is particularly interesting because it offers a librarian’s perspective rather than the much more familiar researcher’s perspective.)

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19 Responses to “Harvard’s library can’t afford journal subscriptions”

  1. Matt Wedel Says:

    Well, this is a watershed moment, precisely because this is coming from Harvard. They just put up an umbrella (for the coming ****storm) over every other educational institution on the planet. Now everyone else can say, “Hey, even Harvard can’t afford it, how can Local State University (or Liberal Arts College, etc.) be expected to keep up?”

    It’s especially nice that they aren’t just complaining about the unsustainable business of barrier-based publishing, but providing concrete suggestions for fixing the broken system. In the same way that the Elsevier boycott is really a declaration of independence, this is a call to arms.

    I have a suspicion that when the revolution comes, it will be fast and brutal, and at least some of the barrier-based publishers will be caught flat-footed, despite all the warnings in the world (see also: newspapers). What’s going to happen when some reasonably prestigious university says, “From now on, every publication emanating from this institution must be gold OA from day one”? Can’t happen? I wouldn’t bet against it. Folks in the Ivory Tower just love a chance to ‘speak truth to power’, especially if they can rescue their budget at the same time.


  2. When I read Harvard’s announcement my jaw hit the floor. Whatever follows this statement is going to change things in a big way, and I hope it changes things for the better. As an aspiring librarian, I cannot wait to get out there, get a job, and be a part of the revolution.

  3. Nima Says:

    Mike and Matt, you both hit the nail right on the head. When journal subscription prices are so out of control that even Harvard can’t afford the current system, that’s when you KNOW it’s insane to try to justify keeping it. I wonder how other universities are even managing at this point… I also agree the fall of profit-gouging publishers will probably be swift and brutal, despite having had no shortage of warnings that the abyss that way lies.

  4. David Marjanović Says:

    Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira !
    Les aristocrates à-à la lanterne,
    ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira !
    Les aristocrates, o-on les pendra !

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Aha. Thank you.

  6. bill Says:

    Of course, I don’t know whether David is encouraging the revolution or calling us a bunch of mangy vengeful peasants…

  7. Anne Says:

    There’s got to be an element of “Harvard doesn’t want to afford it.” As an alumna, I used to give contributions directed specifically toward Harvard’s libraries. Some years ago now, Harvard disallowed any such directed contributions — if one is going to donate to Harvard, one donates to the endowment and they do whatever they want with it. Part of this problem is administration’s decision about how much money they are willing to devote to the libraries.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Anne, I’m sure you’re right. Harvard probably could cut an observatory or two and find some more millions to feed to Elsev^H^H^H^H^Hthe two unnamed big publishers. Obviously their position is that the money is better spent on observatories than on filling the pockets of Else^H^H^Hpublisher shareholders. Bottom line, they (like everyone else) are paying more each year for less. If they want to put a foot down and say Enough. I’m not going to argue with that.


  9. [...] It seems the world is conveniently arranging itself for the benefit of this occasional series.  Every time I am about to post an installment, something apposite happens out there.  Just as I was preparing part 0, Bernstein Research’s investment report Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? came out; just before part 1, Elsevier decided that the solution to their problems was to hire a PR guy; and now, as I prepare part 2, America’s richest university says publicly that it can’t afford spiralling subscription fees any more. [...]


  10. [...] That last point is crucial, of course.  It ties into Harvard’s goal to “move prestige to open access“. [...]


  11. [...] Universities are not messing about.  When Harvard say they can’t afford subscriptions, they probably mean it — it’s not just a negotiating [...]


  12. [...] the Who Needs Access? site [disclosure: which I helped build]. So far no-one’s mentioned that Harvard can’t afford its subscriptions – or maybe they have but the comment was silently moderated into oblivion, as has happened [...]


  13. […] with the socialist brush, it turns them off the idea of OA. But there is no need for that. When even the richest university in the world can’t afford all its subscriptions, open access is good news for the rich as well as the […]


  14. […] I don’t think hybrid journals are the way to go. As Harvard said in their we-can’t-afford-our-subscriptions memo, that means we need to “move the prestige to open access”. Specifically, we need to […]


  15. […] we all know, University libraries have to pay expensive subscription fees to scholarly publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa, so that their researchers […]


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