I think it is time we talked about a difficult and sensitive issue. I have been asked the question over and over again during the past few years, and I recently saw it discussed on an electronic list. Should libraries stop buying materials from the publishers who are suing Georgia State University over electronic reserves? Numerous librarians have asked me since the case began if they could protect the environment for research and teaching by refusing to buy materials sold by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Sage Publishing. Another version of this question that I have also heard is whether or not libraries should try to avoid doing business with the Copyright Clearance Center, which is helping to finance the lawsuit, either by restricting e-reserves to portions within the trial court’s definition of fair use or by insisting on dealing directly with the publisher of the work, not the CCC.
I say this is a difficult and sensitive issue because any attempt to organize a movement along these lines raises worries about violations of anti-trust laws. I have to say immediately that I am NOT an expert on anti-trust, and I frankly do not know where the boundaries lie. I do know that organized boycotts that attempt to force prices down are problematic; anti-trust law is very concerned to protect the role of the competitive market in pricing, so organized movements to reduce prices are quite likely, I believe, to be considered “combinations in restraint of trade.” It is less clear to me what consumers can do when they object to a business practice of a company, rather than price. There have been apparently legal boycotts against retailers based on their labor relations practices; this article, for instance, refers to a call for such a boycott by a former Clinton administration cabinet secretary, who apparently did not get into trouble. Where the line is between price boycotts, which I think are likely to be illegal, and permissible boycotts over business practices, I do not know.
But there is another, more fundamental reason why I do not think libraries can or should organize over this issue. Library buying decisions are mission-driven and must be made locally. For some schools, it may be possible to decide not to buy Oxford, Cambridge and Sage titles because of the lawsuit without compromising their mission to serve teaching and research on their campuses. Other schools would find that to be an intolerable burden on their ability to facilitate education. It depends on the needs of a campus and is probably a conversation that each library should have with its own community.
I want to emphasis this again. The reason we are so disturbed by this unprecedented attack on higher education from academic publishers is precisely because it threatens to undermine our core mission. It would be a mistake to undermine that mission ourselves just because we are so angry at those publishers. So this is what I tell librarians who ask me this question: If you believe you can refuse to buy from these publishers without harming your fundamental mission, or if you have the support of your faculty, then I think you have made a courageous decision that I admire. But if you are considering a unilateral decision without consultation with the teachers, students and researchers in you own community, then I think you have more work to do.
The conversations I am advocating here could have a different effect as well. After all, this deplorable lawsuit is not a “library problem,” it is an academic problem; an issue that needs to be addressed by the higher education community. There were, remember, more faculty members called to testify at the trial in 2011 than there were librarians. And it is our faculty members who supply, for free, the content that these publishers publish and the reviewing work that assures its quality. To my knowledge there is nothing in the law that prevents faculty authors from deciding to publish in and review for different publishers instead of those who are attacking basic scholarly practices. A large group of mathematicians and others made such a pledge some time ago to withhold their scholarship and their labor from publishing giant Elsevier, a move that garnered a great deal of publicity to their complaints and made a real difference on the public policy front. I would be delighted to see librarians and faculty authors on campuses across the US have a similar conversation about how decisions about where to publish or review get made, and whether some decisions are better for the overall scholarly environment than others.