Circulation issues

The last time we had anything to say about the library at Harvard, it was in connection with a lawsuit by a librarian charging discrimination. (And while Desiree Goodwin lost that suit, her name still appears regularly in the search logs, reason enough to mention her again.)

But this is a different matter entirely. It appears that subscriptions to academic journals are becoming entirely too pricey, even for a university with $30 billion or so in endowment:

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.

What’s worse, some of these providers bundle journals and offer them only as a package: if Harvard wants, say, A and B, they will also have to take U, V and W. (Anyone who subscribes to cable TV knows how much fun that is.)

Of course, one could just point to that $30 billion:

At the current cost, their endowment could cover subscribing to those journals until the year 10,279. The annual tab is .0001 percent of the endowment, which means if it earns a lousy passbook-level 2% a year the interest on this year alone could pay for the subscriptions until 2177.

I wish I knew who’d pay me 2 percent on passbook savings these days. Then again, I don’t have thirty billion on deposit.

Addendum: Just received: The Week, with a full-page ad for BlackRock, containing this timely tag: “2% ISN’T A RETURN; IT’S A RETREAT.”

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