Education should no longer be held to ransom by publishers

BALANCING tertiary institution budgets — without fee increases and with increases in costs due to inflation and potential insourcing — are not the only headaches facing vice-chancellors and their councils. The growing challenges over procuring essential research information will be adding to their woes.

Around the world, frustration at the price of academic journals is growing. The research and academic library market is finite, so publishing companies (for profit and nonprofit alike) increase revenue and shareholder value by increasing the price.

At the time of writing, exchange rate volatility has been such that even a zero percent increase in academic journal and database subscriptions purchased in dollars will amount to a 23% increase in rand costs. In the past five years, inflation linked to the exchange rate has increased by 118%.

It gets worse. If the increase in essential academic resources is 5% in dollar terms next year, for example, this will mean an effective increase of 30% in rands, a clearly unsustainable situation.

As subscription costs increase, the latest peer-reviewed academic research is being placed beyond the reach of more and more institutions and those who benefit from it: researchers, academics and students.

Over the years, there have been boycotts and expressions of resistance from academics over the issue. After Elsevier, one of the world’s biggest academic publishers, announced a more restrictive “sharing policy” in April, 284 organisations and 2,748 individuals around the world signed a statement, objecting to the policy. Most recently, the editorial staff and board of Lingua, a top global linguistics journal, resigned in protest against Elsevier’s pricing and the publisher’s refusal to make content available free of charge through open access.

The resignations have drawn support from a wide range of key groups, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (Aplu) with a membership of 238 universities, colleges and higher education institutions in the US, Canada and Mexico. Aplu president Peter McPherson was reported in Inside Higher Ed as saying the system was “fundamentally broken”.

At stake are not simply practical matters of cost. There are also matters of fairness, and even justice. Most would argue that access to research information is an international human right and essential for the advancement of knowledge and, by extension, humankind and the wellbeing of the planet. Why should progress be held to ransom by unscrupulous publishers and their shareholders?

Withholding knowledge and information is a travesty. Perhaps such pricing policies should be brought to the attention of the Competition Commission.

The situation is even more objectionable when one considers that the production of that knowledge has already been paid for through institutional funding via government subsidies and private funding for research. In purchasing journals, universities in effect have to “buy back” the research they produce, research that is funded by the institution and taxpayers.

It seems there are two ways to fix the problem: reduce the cost of access in the current system or change the academic publishing system. The effects of this dysfunctional system are universal. Not even relatively wealthy universities can afford to subscribe to all the journals users demand any more — hence the western institutions’ boycotts. But, in the developing world, where limited resources seem to sit in inverse relation to the quality education demand, the effects are devastating.

Jason Schmitt, in his article Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History, argues that while higher education is being redefined to meet the needs and affordability required of the 21st century, the most basic functions of sharing academic research need to be retooled. Retooling, however, can mean a lot of things. At its most noble, it will mean open access, in terms of which the cost of publishing is covered upfront so that anybody with access to the internet can access the research. The problem is that open access comes in different forms and is arguably not always more affordable. Someone has to pay.

The point is that making academic research more accessible is more difficult than it would seem. The devil is in the detail. So, it’s time to get working on that detail and find as many ways as possible to create more access more affordably.

If prominent financial writers are to be believed, and there is plenty of evidence to support it, SA is heading for a fiscal cliff. Access to the most current (and past) domestic and international research will soon be added to shortages of potable water, electricity, housing, affordable quality education and so on. Much is to be gained through a collective response, one that strengthens the negotiating power of institutions as a collective and kick-starts what needs to be a fundamental shift in the balance of power: away from commercial interests and towards greater freedom of exchange of information and access to the fruits of academic scholarship.

The Southern African Regional Universities Association (Sarua) is in early talks with the South African National Library and Information Consortium, which works on a nonprofit basis to negotiate more affordable access to electronic data bases and digital resources for South African member institutions. The consortium is also providing a client service to the universities of Namibia and Botswana and has indicated its willingness to extend it services to other Southern African Development Community (Sadc) institutions, taking on the responsibility of securing preferential deals with key publishers on their behalf.

Shifting the balance of power in favour of access involves embracing open access initiatives. At a Sarua Open Access Leadership Summit in 2007, Sadc vice-chancellors committed to promoting open access. Some have since developed policies for their institutions, and more knowledge is now available by researchers on institutional repositories. By sharing knowledge, we increase its effect, which is the point of knowledge-production.

Given the economic climate, higher education institutions in the Sadc region are simply not able to pay more for what are, in many cases, already limited academic resources. In reality, increased subscription fees by publishers will necessitate stark choices: the cancellation of journals and other sacrifices. On this basis, Sarua calls on the publishing firms drastically to reduce or preferably scrap increases in subscription fees for next year.

Furthermore, we call on all African regional institutions and governments to join forces in a strategic conversation about the cost of journals and the exclusionary copyright provisions imposed by the academic publishing industry.

Let’s fix this flawed system and give African higher education institutions the right — and the means — to contribute to the global knowledge economy.

Kotecha is Sarua CEO



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