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The Austere Academy
July 26, 2012 - 9:15pm

Today, these things all seem somehow connected.

In a review of a slim (and apparently quite interesting) academic book, anthropologist Alex Golub began by asking why a book of under 200 pages based on a dissertation that has already been used as material for several articles should cost $34.95. Actually, it’s not the cost of the book being questioned. (Of the preceding articles, one costs nearly as much for what is technically a rental; the other articles appeared in open access journals).  Rather, he asks “where are we as an intellectual community where the impetus to publish pushes people to recycle the same material over and over in the name of ‘productivity’? What sort of value are publishers adding to Chen’s work that justifies their charging that much money?” Good questions.

In an analysis of the RCUK and EU’s response to the Finch Report (as policy makers put the United Kingdom on a fast track toward open access to publicly-funded research), Kevin Smith reports the director of a scholarly society has said it costs them from $2,500 to $3,000 to publish an article. (That doesn’t, of course, include the costs involved in conducting the research, writing up the results, or reviewing by peers.) Smith  asks whether it really needs to cost that much and urges funders to demand greater transparency about these expenses.

As I put together the annual report for the library, I spent a lot of time looking at numbers. One of them was the average cost of articles we provided to faculty published in journals we can’t afford and which we couldn’t get free through interlibrary loan. (In some cases, we had exhausted the fair use limit of five articles per year from a particular journal that we can’t possibly afford to subscribe to. Others we had to buy because their publishers prohibit subscribing libraries from sharing PDFs. Instead, they have to print them out and scan them before sending them to another library, which deliberately renders them useless in cases where figures are critical.) The average cost we paid per article? $41.89.

These things, and an all-college budget meeting, have made me do some big picture reflection. Campuses everywhere (and their libraries) are facing cuts. Austerity is the stern religion sweeping the land – a curious successor to the previous bull-worshipping “greed is good” cult, which nevertheless leaves its traces in the part of the austerity catechism that states “wealth is good.” On campuses, the decisions about what gets cut seem to be increasingly made by the highest paid administrators whose mandate to make decisions is established by virtue of the fact that they are highly paid, not because they are uniquely informed or especially wise. (Recent events at the University of Virginia come to mind as a particularly disastrous application of the “we’re the deciders” approach to academic leadership.) This approach also says, indirectly, “we’re not in this together; be grateful if you aren’t the one who gets cut.” Thinking collectively about priorities and ways to cut costs could actually help us arrive at better, more informed decisions, but that seems heretical. The syncretic religion of austerity, with its embedded belief that individual desire drives human behavior, seems antithetical to what libraries are all about: establishing communal access to ideas through sharing. Never mind that pooling our resources is actually financially efficient; sharing runs counter to the way society is meant to work.

The articles we buy for faculty can’t be shared. That's a legal constraint placed on the transaction: no sharing. When we purchase access to articles (because it's the least expensive way to get them and, therefore, the only way to get them) I feel as if our library's mission is being redefined as "to fund individual access to information" - because community access is unaffordable. Libraries don’t build collections, corporations do – collections of intellectual property assets that only have value if they are not shared freely.

I know that publishing research findings, however we do it in future, will always cost something, but you don’t have to be a highly-paid administrator to know that we’re paying too high price for the current state of affairs. We could be making the knowledge we produce more widely available if we rearranged our spending habits and if we decided as a culture to value the common good more than individual needs. If we truly want to contribute to knowledge, we need to design a system that is not driven by the need to prove individual productivity but by contributions to our common understanding, a system that enhances knowledge, not just reputations and bottom lines.

By the way, some of you may recognize the source of my title. The Austere Academy is the fifth volume in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. It seemed appropriate.

 

 

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