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The Harvard Library took another step toward making research materials and library resources more accessible when it announced yesterday that it will make more than 12 million bibliographic records for a wide range of materials—including books, images, videos, and manuscripts—available to the public.
The announcement represents an official University effort to increase the availability of library resources at a time when open access to academic materials has become a hot topic in the publishing community at large.
It also comes on the heels of the circulation of a memo written by the Faculty Advisory Council on the Library last week stating that Harvard cannot maintain its extant level of journal subscription if publishers continue to raise prices at current rates.
“It’s just not possible for the budget of the library to continue paying the kinds of increases which have been experienced in the past without damaging collections in other areas,” said James Engell, an English professor and member of the Faculty Advisory Council. "We therefore must explore emerging paths and models to ensure that all faculty and researchers have available to them the materials that they need."
The Harvard Library currently spends almost $3.75 million on journals a year, according to the memo—a value that comprised more than 20 percent of the periodicals budget in 2010 and almost 10 percent of the Library’s total collections budget.
According to Engell, the prices of online journals have increased dramatically over the last six to seven years, but the Faculty Advisory Council wanted to wait to issue a public letter until it had thoroughly discussed the issue internally.
“We’re concerned that our colleagues across the university perhaps aren’t aware of the gravity of the situation,” Engell said. “We want to inform them about that.”
Many faculty members contribute articles to or are involved in peer review for these journals, and the Faculty Advisory Council memo encourages them to make their work publicly available through the Digitial Access to Scholarship at Harvard repository, to contribute to open access journals, and to advocate for more reasonable and sustainable access.
Although faculty are not required to contribute, over half the faculty have already done so, according to University Librarian Robert C. Darnton ’60.
He added that even students have joined the effort, with student open access fellows “knocking on doors” and helping faculty deposit articles.
“If I had to select one word to describe what I’m trying to do with the library it would be openness,” Darnton said. “It’s also a national asset, a national treasure.... Well now we can share this national asset, as I see it, through the electronic revolution.”
Some librarians think the discussion should have recieved public attention earlier.
“It is a topic that has been in discussion for ten years or more and that is well documented in the scientific literature,” said Sebastian Hierl, Librarian for Western Europe. “My point of view is that we should have had this discussion several years ago.”
The trend of high prices used to mainly affect scientific journals, which tend to be more lucrative for publishers. Four large publishing companies—Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Nature—are now the primary science publishers, but price hikes have spread to social science and humanities publications as well.
For example, Hierl cited the Italian publisher Fabrizio Serra, which has increased costs 100 percent each year for the last ten years. Some publishers will charge up to ten times more than their smaller competitors for comparable journals, and by combining key journals into bundles with less well-known journals, publishing companies also force institutions like Harvard to buy more than they need.
Faculty members usually contribute their work free of charge to publishers. But while professors receive no monetary compensation, they must publish in reputable journals to receive tenure appointments.
While publishers will say they promote scholarship through “peer review and editorial support,” in addition to widespread distribution, Hierl said he still thinks they should not be gaining undue profit from academic work.
“Why pay a publisher to sell you what you yourself have produced?” he said.
Hierl said he is concerned the model of rising prices could expand to book publishing and other publication forms, as well.
Harvard has also been actively involved in implementing the new Digital Public Library of America, of which former law professor John G. Palfrey '94 is chair.
The DPLA, a national effort to digitize every book in the world, will open in April 2013. Leaders of the project are still working on ways to digitize as many book as possible without infringing copyright.
“Harvard’s part of that; we’ve taken the lead,” Darnton said.
—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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