In the quiet, restrained world of research libraries, any controversies that arise are, for the most part, cordial and largely academic. So some within the industry may have been understandably surprised by the widespread attention paid when, in April, Harvard's Faculty Advisory Council sent a letter to the faculty concerning what it alleged was a crisis with its scholarly journal subscriptions.
The letter reported an "untenable situation facing the Harvard Library" in which "many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive." The letter revealed that Harvard is paying $3.75 million annually in journal subscriptions and that they make up "10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires." A few of the journals, it says, cost upward of $40,000 a year--each. "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." Its conclusion: "Major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained." To underscore the weight of what Harvard had just done by releasing this letter, one blogger headlined his post, “The wealthiest university on Earth can’t afford its academic journal subscriptions.”
Though the letter's short-term impact was to inform the non-academic world of the growing tension between research libraries and journal publishers, many in the industry say its long-term effect lies in its list of recommendations for how to ameliorate the situation. Harvard implores its top researchers to "consider submitting articles to open-access journals" and to "consider resigning" from the editorial boards of journals that don't provide open-access offerings. Because an open-access journal allows anyone to easily and without cost read any of its published material, a large-scale migration to the platform would ease many of the financial burdens posed by subscription journals.
And just like that, Harvard put its considerable muscle into what is becoming a major disruption in the academic publishing industry--the open-access journal. And its ascent can in some ways be compared to that of the E-book.
Though the E-book is now ubiquitous and commands a major share of the publishing marketplace, it spent the first 10 years of its existence in obscurity, its market share little more than a rounding error. This all changed, of course, with the launch of the Amazon Kindle. Announced by CEO Jeff Bezos to much fanfare in 2007, the E-reader quickly gained a foothold in the publishing market, in part because of its use of E-ink technology--which mimicked the visual experience of a traditional print book--and the company's existing customer base of millions who already had their credit card information stored and were primed for one-click shopping. By late 2010, Amazon announced Kindle E-books were outselling paperbacks on the site, and we were treated to stories of authors who had been initially shunned by the major New York publishers but then went on to make thousands, if not millions, of dollars self-publishing their work on the Kindle store. The floodgates were open.
Like the E-book, the open access journal has spent much of its existence struggling to gain legitimacy in a crowded marketplace. It is a platform largely applauded conceptually but, until recently, rarely adopted in a world where an academic's publications are important career stepping stones--ones that determine the allotment of large research grants or tenure at universities. Many academics have been reluctant to wade in because of the lack of prestige that accompanies many of these upstarts.
The scholarly scientific journal industry is, arguably, at least a few centuries old. The oldest journal is thought to have been the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was first published in the mid-1600s. The concept of peer review was developed at this time, and during the 20th century academics attempted to perfect this process, refining an intricate editorial system in which each manuscript is subjected to layers of review and the end result is held up as a near-unassailable product. To have one's work published in a peer-reviewed journal lends it a legitimacy unmatched by any other form of publication or dissemination. And the more prestigious the journal, the more unassailable the article becomes.