A vexing question

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.

4 thoughts on “A vexing question”

  1. This is the way I look at it. If those publishers are the only place I can get the needed information I will buy it from them. If I can find it elsewhere, and it fills the need, I will buy it elsewhere. My first mission is to get the resources my community needs, but if I have a choice in who to buy it from, I may lean away from those publishers. I, too, think the lawsuit is deplorable.

    I spent many years working in businesses selling products. You don’t anger and abuse your customers if you want to stay in business. Their behavior really bothers me. In the opinion of this former business person turned librarian, the publishers have had a cushy situation in academia for too long. They need to figure some new business models as the world is changing.

  2. Libraries are about providing access to information, primarily sources & scholarly communication. So, we can’t go about ruling out whole categories of scholarly publications. At the same time, libraries have been forced into new models of staffing, acquisitions and expenditures by financial pressures. While my general model is to work with my faculty, seek their expertise and provide all the material they need for their research and teaching, I also have to take responsibility for managing that reduced budget, in part by saying “NO” to requests for multiple copies for reserves and very high-priced collections that fit better into another cooperating library’s profile.
    Thus, if Oxford, et al. prevail in preventing e-reserves, we will own one copy of essential materials and it will be made available legally, and the faculty and students will deal. This is not a cartel or a boycott, but I encourage other library administrators to adopt a similar policy. One of the ways that professors will deal, will be to avoid inessential readings that will be hard to share. One of the above companies took over publication of a periodical to which we had subscribed and quintupled the price of course. I happened to have a recent issue of that periodical on my desk, so I looked at the reviews and realized that they were consistently mediocre and the articles tended toward a rather retrograde ideological perspective. I ordered the periodical cancelled–two weeks later I get a call from the publisher’s European office–why did you cancel? My answer, ‘we were doing a favor in paying $40 to keep scholarly lines of communication open, and the periodical was barely worth that, we cannot afford five times that for this sort of thing…’
    As prices zoom up, our standards have to go up, and we have to be willing to stop purchasing inessential items. One boon of e-books is that we can move many standing orders to Demand Driven Acquisitions, and therefore only pay for the volumes whose circulation is greater than zero–in a small place like ours, that will save a lot of money.

    Part of publishers’ costs are salaries benefits and bonuses for an outdated business model–the publishers have to share in libraries austerity or get out of the market–we will find new ways for academic communication.

    Thanks Kevin.

  3. I agree with you on this issue (and most every other!), but I would like to suggest that it is not accurate to say that “our faculty members … supply, for free, the content that these publishers publish.” That is often the case, but it is also the case that university presses pay royalties to book authors (and especially textbook authors). And the standard contractual provision splits the proceeds from permissions fees with the author 50/50. I mention this not to diminish your argument but to help you strengthen it in the future.

Comments are closed.