That sentence, lurking inconspicuously in the middle of a university-sanctioned press release, should bring shudders to academic publishers. With a few words, the guardians of Harvard’s library have made it clear beyond the last profiteering doubt that Harvard and her peers can overcome the publishers.
Not to say that doing so will be straightforward. The journals have become structurally embedded in the academic world. As Yale Librarian Susan Gibbons has noted, “You get tenure by, in part, publishing in the best journals. And until those journals are interested in an open-access model, which really takes away their revenue stream, we have this tension going on.”
Journals, which publishers can sell individually for as much as $40,000 per year, facilitate academic discourse. Through peer review and distribution to an established audience, the journals play an instrumental role in spreading new ideas and discoveries. Because publishing in a top journal is essential for any researcher looking to make a name for herself or at least spread her contributions to the most relevant minds, the journals possess exclusive access to some of the most significant academic literature.
Although librarians may be willing to reconsider their relationship with the journals, junior faculty members are in a far less convenient position to do so. Since universities grade the quality of their personnel partly with respect to the influence of their work, non-tenured members of the faculty are unlikely to favor a less-renowned, open-access journal in the name of a moral claim against journal publishers.
Traditional journals are in the business of distributing prestige as much as quality research. And the strange politics of prestige in academia has sustained their dominance. But if the politics of prestige should change — which I believe is inevitable — the parasitism of the journals may lose its grip. That is why the Harvard librarians’ statement, “move prestige to open access,” is so interesting.
To that effort, it has been suggested that the Harvard community publish in open-access journals or at least, when possible, avoid any affiliation with journals associated with unfair pricing policies. If members of the Harvard community start publishing en masse in these open-access journals, these alternative journals may very well see a boost in status.
Princeton, for its part, instituted a formal policy early this year that authorizes University faculty to publish their work in open-access areas, such as open-access journals, other freely available archives and personal web sites.
Although these efforts are commendable, it is unclear whether open-access journals in their current form will be able to threaten the journals’ death-grip over academic discourse. There is a fundamental difference between finding research and discovering research. Open access makes it possible to find a piece of literature that you’re looking for. But discovering research, which the top journals excel at, is the key to an engaged discourse. As long as the top journals filter the best research, they will prove a necessary burden. And if they lower their prices, which could happen if enough universities join Harvard’s protest, they may prove a lasting one too.
For the sake of the academic community, I hope that this confrontation amounts to more than just playing out negotiations in public. Unfair pricing is just the wedge for a larger issue.
Stewart Brand, of “Whole Earth Catalog” fame (whose slogan of “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” was revitalized by Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech), once said that information wants to be free. Brand’s idea suggests that as the cost of producing information decreases over time, its availability will increase. While I agree with this claim as a historically grounded observation, the issue here isn’t simply about being on the right side of history — though as it happens, Harvard’s librarians likely are. At stake here is a greater ideal: Knowledge should be free. Academic research should be free, or at least free in the sense of universal accessibility, which does not preclude information from having a price; it merely demands an accessible one.
Peter Zakin is a philosophy major from New York, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.