From Library Babel Fish, October 20, 2011

Among the recurring images from Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are the signs held by young people tallying their college debt. They’ve been jeered at for wanting their loans forgiven, but deep in debt and without a job is a terrible way to start your adult life. I didn’t have to take out loans. I was able to pay my tuition bills, and I only had to work part time while taking classes; tuition was that cheap. Once we thought an educated populace was a good thing to have. But we no longer believe in education as a public good. Goods cannot be public these days. We’re more likely to hear “it’s an investment” – just like those houses that were supposed to keep going up in value.

What is it we are getting in exchange for all that accumulated student debt? Well, we have more knowledge than ever, but that’s a chimera, too. We academics don’t actually own the knowledge we create, we only license it. Faculty are too busy producing new scholarship to think much about changing the system, because productivity is measured in publications. Publishers confer prestige, and scholars have to trade their work for bits of that prestige in order to stay in the game. Those who question the rules of the game are quickly reminded that they are lucky to have jobs, that a majority of academic laborers are not so fortunate. (This is not unlike what students hear: look at you, you own a phone! How dare you complain about your student loans!)

All that productivity does not necessarily extend knowledge, or rather it does – but only for those who can afford it. Libraries were once a monument to the wisdom that comes of sharing of knowledge, but now libraries only foot the bill for temporary access to information, and only for their campus community.

A fair amount of basic science is still funded with tax dollars, but that’s because the private sector needs massive public investment into fundamental scientific knowledge. That stuff’s expensive! But the results of that tax funded basic science are not available to just anyone. The reports of research become the property of publishing corporations, including corporations run by scholarly societies such as the American Psychological Association and the American Chemical Society. These societies benefit from being tax exempt, but they actively lobby against open access. An editor of one of the American Chemical Society’s publications once characterized the (so far unsuccessful) legislative attempts to require that recipients of federal funds make their publicly funded research results public as socialized science. (Funding the science is apparently a wise investment of tax dollars, but letting people read the results – socialism!)

Here’s my version of an Occupy Wall Street cardboard sign. At my library, we’ve been seeing big price increases in two big journal packages that we really need. Again. This is what we’re paying for American Chemical Society journals

  • 2010 – $29,705
  • 2011 – $34,337
  • 2012 – $41,741

This is what we’re paying for SAGE journals

  • 2010 – $39,105
  • 2011 – $41,442
  • 2012 – $52,500

Look, don’t get me wrong: these are great publications. I don’t personally use the chemistry collection, but I know it’s excellent stuff and that our students and faculty really need it. I do search SAGE quite often for my own research. Where else will I find such robust research on things like social inequality and gentrification? I’m not just being snarky; I know this kind of high-quality publishing costs money. Fine. I know that faculty are producing more research and presumably somebody’s got to publish it. But the only way I can afford to keep these journals (and I can’t afford not to) is to cut other things. Smaller societies, university presses? Sorry – you’ll be getting less of my money. I’ll do this because I have to, but dammit – this is so wrong.

Our budget has been flat for a few years. I don’t fault our administration for that. A lot of our acquisitions funding comes from endowment, and we lost a lot of ground in the financial crisis. The administration has had to scramble to make up the loss in endowment to keep our budget from shrinking. What are they supposed to do to fund these price hikes, raise tuition? Our students can’t afford that. I don’t want that.

I’m not upset that my budget isn’t growing. I’m upset that scholarly publishers think these price hikes are okay, that they can keep adding new journals to their title lists with the expectation that I will pay for them. I’m upset that big scholarly publishing is being run like a protection racket, and that both I and the faculty I serve are pawns in this game.

Are you seeing price hikes like these? Tell the world. Tweet it, post it to Facebook, get the word out. Next week is Open Access Week. If you, too, think there’s something wrong with this picture, it’s time to raise some hell.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.