Academic Journals are too Expensive For Harvard, Elsevier is Mega Greedy, and Why this Stinks for Future Librarians

Harvard announced it will be unable to afford its academic journal subscriptions in a recent memo:

“Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.  Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. 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. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.”

The Open Access Argument

Harvard then encouraged its researchers and academic community to seek publishing in open access repositories: “Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access” and to get their associations involved in such conversations about open access”   Harvard Library director, Robert Darnton wants other universities to follow suit because “We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”

As an aspiring academic librarian, entering into this situation scares me.  If Harvard, one of the richest and most prestigious universities in the United States, cannot afford scientific journal subscriptions and the situation is dire enough to outweigh the shame in publicly announcing this, how will the academic library I eventually work for be able to manage?  Publishers should make a profit and, I expect them to be rewarded for vetting, organizing and managing the process of publishing and providing access to data.  That is not my issue.  What makes me uncomfortable is when academic research is highly commodified, thereby causing a skewed bottom line approach to knowledge, and a situation in which memos have to be released pushing for open access to make it more affordable or risk both bankrupting the library and academic institutions.

I worry when quality academic information is now so expensive, even the wealthy are no longer ashamed to admit they cannot afford it.  I do not relish being a librarian helpless to the whims of publishers that are so big, they have lost sight that while money needs to be made to support the system, the ultimate purpose of scholarly research is to further human knowledge and progress, and not to bolster the bottom line.  When publishers would rather risk the integrity of the scientific community and limit access, in order to squeeze as much money as possible out of the researchers and the institutions, it demonstrates a dire, unsustainable and cold environment that aspiring academic librarians, such as myself, will enter into.

The Cost of Academic Journals

Scientific Journals serve the distinctive purpose of verifying, reviewing, spreading and providing access to quality academic work.  The benefits of a gatekeeper journal model are obvious: to ensure quality pieces are published and shared.  Still, the increasing commercialization and monopolization of access to information by a few companies resulted in financially unsustainable practices of charging institutions increasingly higher prices every year.  The publisher Elsevier, in particular, has come under fire for making record profits by charging high prices for access to scholarly research, most of which is publicly funded.  Recently Winston Hide, resigned as associate editor of the prestigious Elsevier journal Genomics because the journal was so expensive, scientists in developing third world countries, especially in Africa, could not afford access to potentially lifesaving research.  Cambridge mathematician, Tim Gowers, was so fed up with Elsevier’s practices that he wrote a a blog post summarizing criticism of the company, publicly announced he would no longer publish in their journals and asked other mathematicians to follow his example.   As a result, the Cost of Knowledge, was launched and more than 10,000 academics have pledged to boycott Elsevier.   Where I live in Salt Lake City, Utah academics accused publishers like Elsevier of holding a monopoly over the scholarly research, a product which is not created by the them but by research funded by the taxpayers and foundations.  Rick Anderson, acting dean of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, stated “The bottom line is that when you have monopoly control of a high-demand commodity, you can charge whatever you want for it — so they do,”  As a result, many Utah academics have pledged to boycott Elsevier and support open access models.

What does the Future hold?

While I could argue that librarians and scientists need to come together cut out middle man publishers, the reality is academics and librarians are not united enough to do something so bold.  Furthermore, the infrastructure of open access is not developed enough to be able to compete with the prestige of most scientific journals.  However, there is hope; technology is allowing for alternatives and many institutions, including Harvard, have invested in open access repositories.  Open Access Repositories, like arXiv, have even gained a bit of respect.  Gradually, I hope both librarians and academics focus on building open access infrastructure and creating an academic atmosphere in which a scholar can be successful in his or her career without publishing in a journal.   Perhaps through both boycotting and supporting alternative routes, like open access, academic librarians can be in a better position to negotiate a hard bargain with publishers for affordable access to knowledge

Dorotea Szkolar

I am an alumna of the iSchool MLIS program and am mainly interested in writing about technology and libraries. Contact me at doroteaszkolar@gmail.com or @doroteaszkolar if you would like to chat.

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  • Hilton Gibson
  • Dr Qwerty

    Hi Dorotea. Thanks for an interesting blog. Do you foresee any downside for libraries if the research community was hypothetically to move to 100% open access publishing? That is, is there not a risk the role of the library becomes less relevant if the end user can merely go to an open access platform on the web, whereas previously they absolutely required library to access info they need?

    • No I don’t think so.  Academic
      Research libraries sometimes host open access repositories (i.e. Cornell
      hosting arXiv) and some have their own official repositories where they make student and university
      research freely available.  It will
      really depend on how open access develops and how libraries collaborate with
      new technologies.  I do not feel it is
      the intention of open access to make libraries irrelevant and there is opportunity for collaboration.  The more open and accessible information is the better, especially if the library can link to and provide access to the information at the fraction of the cost of journals.  

      • Dr Qwerty

        Thanks for reply. I see you are an optimist. Another aspect of issue is that it may be more expensive for institutes who are net exporters of knowledge (e.g. Harvard) to pay author fees to publish in OA journals than it is to buy traditional journal subscriptions. Do you have a view on that?

        • Dorotea Szkolar

          I don’t think a library should pay authors per say because
          librarianship is not about publishing. 
          What we should be concerned with is connecting people with information
          that will be impactful to whatever it is they are trying to achieve.  Librarians should also be interested in
          cultivating information creation and in that regard, maybe libraries do support
          similar goals to publishing.  I don’t
          ever think it will be a either we have all academic journals or all
          repositories situation, honestly.  In
          fact, there are certain scientific journals which require authors, in order to
          be published, to put all of their data in open access repositories.  Some scientific data sets are too large for
          the journals to publish, but they want that information to be accessible to readers
          who want it. 

          Now for institutions like universities, don’t they already pay
          and expect their professors to do research?  The problem is we have a system where in order
          for an academic to succeed, he or she must publish in journals to gain credibility.  Now, in order to publish, the author, from
          what I understand, usually must sign over rights for that research and paper, which
          the university or government funded and author put in all this hard work to
          produce.  Then for what, for research
          produced and paid by the university to get sold back to the university library
          highly marked up?  I want scholars to
          rethink the system as new technology is now available and explore alternative
          ways of sharing information in which the authors/academics can retain rights to
          their work and the university can maintain rights to that research.  These alternatives have to become just as respectable
          as publishing in a journal.  Is open
          access the answer to that?  I don’t know,
          but maybe it’s a start. 

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