Accessibility of Scholarly Databases Limited by Cost

The rise of the Internet has led many consumers to ask the same question: why should I pay for something when I can find it for free online?

This question has been extended to textbooks, music, and movies. More recently, a movement has begun to tear down research journals’ stubbornly expensive pay walls and make journal articles free for all.

For decades, the subscription fees to scholarly journals such as Nature and Wiley Online Library have risen at a staggering rate, dwarfing the pace of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

According to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the average library spent 273 percent more on journal subscriptions in 2004 than it did in 1986; the CPI, meanwhile, rose only 73 percent. Subscription prices have overtaken the rate of inflation at a rate of four to one.

Diane Westerfield, Tutt Library’s Electronic Resources & Serials Librarian, calculates that the average price hike of these journal subscriptions has increased an average of 21.67 percent per year since 1997.

The dynamic between libraries and journal publishing companies leaves libraries with very little leverage. Westerfield explained that libraries are mainly at the mercy of the professors, and professors at a high-end institution like Colorado College demand the most prestigious and relevant journal titles.

Journals realize this, and, as a result, demand exorbitant fees. “These companies are gouging academic libraries as if they were commercial enterprises,” said Westerfield.

Despite most of the research behind their content being funded by tax dollars, it is not unusual for the largest of these companies, such as Springer or Taylor & Francis, to have profit margins exceeding 30 percent. Meanwhile, the average profit margin for a large private company was only 8.6 percent in 2014, according to Forbes.

Those like Westerfield view these margins, along with the fact that certain companies like Elsevier, which had a profit margin of 37 percent in 2014, pay researchers nothing for their articles, as unjust.

Library budgets have failed to keep up with these ever-rising costs, and some have even slashed budgets amidst shrinking funding. Though Tutt Library has been spared from these budget cuts, they have been operating at a loss, in large part due to journal costs.

borah_graph
Graph showing the increase in subscription cost to journal databases over time. In general, while subscriptions for EBSCONET have declined, major eJournal packages have become more costly. In 2016 alone, the subscription price to eJournal packages in total was $588,684. The fairness of such pricing has sparked public debate, and has motivated others to seek legal and illegal workarounds.

Tutt pays for two types of subscriptions: EBSCONET subscriptions, which are “selected journal, magazine and journal subscriptions from various vendors,” and subscriptions to major eJournal packages.

These include only big-name, big-cost services, like Science Direct or Wiley. Tutt has canceled many EBSCONET subscriptions, as most EBSCONET content is included within the eJournal packages. Major eJournal subscription costs, however, have risen precipitously since 2005, outstripping any costs saved from unsubscribing to EBSCONET resources.

Westerfield estimates the overall cost of journal subscriptions to be roughly $900,000, almost a third of Tutt’s $1.5 million budget. The college has thus far covered these costs, but the library is uncertain how long this charity will last.

Cutting costs by unsubscribing to journals is harder than it seems. Westerfield points out that a subscription to the Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry journal costs $8,539.67 per year, which is Tutt’s most expensive individual journal subscription. Westerfield calculates that the cost per use, calculated by dividing the cost by the number of articles downloaded, is $129.34.

While Westerfield would love to unsubscribe to this underused resource, doing so would risk CC’s chemistry accreditation. “It’s published by a scholarly society, The Royal Society of Chemistry, not a for-profit company,” Westerfield said of the Organic and Biolmolecular Chemistry journal. “Sometimes I wonder where the money goes. Do they have highly paid administrators? [Do they have] open bars at the annual conference?”

Rising journal expenditures, along with plateauing or falling library budgets, is referred to as the “Serial Crisis” and has inspired action to make journal articles more readily available.

In 2013, Aaron Swartz downloaded nearly every JSTOR research article after hacking into an M.I.T. server, supposedly intending to make the content publicly available. Recently, Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan started Sci-Hub, a file-sharing website offering free access to scholarly articles.

These open source activists have been swiftly rebuked.

Swartz incurred enormous financial penalties and a prison sentence because of his action. Many suspect that this devastating punishment led to his 2011 suicide. Elbakyan, meanwhile, has escaped to Russia after being persecuted by a United States Federal Court, though Sci-Hub continues to run uninhibited.

Though many open source supporters understand their motivation, they do not see these illegal ventures as the appropriate course of action. “Unlawful access gives open access a bad name,” said Peter Suber, Harvard’s director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, in a recent New York Times article.

“None of this happened by itself; servers, electricity to run servers. Programmers, people laboring at scanners, office space, none of it is free,” said Westerfield of rule-following publishers. “Sci-Hub couldn’t function by itself, it’s like a BitTorrent website. Sci-Hub doesn’t produce the material, doesn’t pay for the servers, the programmers, etc. This doesn’t justify Elsevier’s notorious profit margins.”

If companies like Elsevier continue to price gouge libraries and stretch their budgets thin, it is not hard to imagine costs soon being passed on to the student. Let’s just tack it on to the already immense $62,000 tuition tab.

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