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Unsustainable scholarship: How private companies control research in higher education

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Correction: a previous version of this article misstated Elsevier's connection to Norway. After the country cancelled subscriptions with Elsevier, a new two year pilot program was established to make articles by Norwegian authors free to read in Elsevier's journals. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

The world of academic research has been consumed by its middle-men: private publishing companies. UNC Libraries is pushing back against the publishers' aggressive tactics that they say perpetuate a broken marketplace.

One of UNC Libraries most important responsibilities is acquiring subscriptions to academic research journals. At a University like UNC, where faculty are expected to be cutting-edge, having an extensive library is required — so access to the most prestigious journals is imperative for researchers.

But UNC Libraries has faced consistent budget cuts since 2008, and during that same time the percentage of its budget spent on journal subscriptions has gone from 28 percent to over 70 percent. 

Vice Provost of University Libraries and University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks said the current system of scholarship is unsustainable. 

“We’re at this tipping point,” she said. “We’ve all lost control over the scholarly publishing system.”

Unsustainable scholarship

The process starts with academics who create content for research journals. Then come peer reviewers, who edit and criticize new research to ensure high quality. 

Research at UNC is financed by taxpayers and other grants. Neither the author nor peer reviewers are paid if their original research is accepted by a scholarly journal for publication.

Private publishing companies then package journals together in clumps, and sell university libraries access to them. The publishing companies charge each university differently, depending on its subscription history and school size, and have each school sign nondisclosure agreements, keeping universities from discovering costs paid by peers. 

Once the content is back in the hands of universities, it’s put behind a paywall, where only university affiliates can access the information.

In this model, taxpayers fund research, and then must pay again to access it. 

Nerea Llamas is the associate University librarian for collections, strategies and services, and her job is to strategize the acquisition and dissemination of academia in the digital age. 

She said this process can be unhealthy. 

“The effect is that not only are we paying multiple times, but we are cutting off access to other people who can’t afford to pay for that,” she said. “That could be other institutions in the U.S., but then also other institutions internationally.”

Llamas said the publishing companies advertise their packaged, multi-journal deals as the best cost available. But over time, the companies can raise the price by introducing new costs and subscriptions, like how cable companies can charge customers for unwanted perks, she said. 

Political science professor Timothy Ryan has published many scholarly articles, and said he sympathizes with the Libraries' concern. 

“Publishers — and Elsevier is the clearest example of this — make a boatload by selling academics’ material back to us, at a steep premium,” he said. “It’s not at all clear what value they add.”

Elsevier is the world’s largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals, with close to $4 billion in 2018 revenue and profit margins consistently above 30 percent. 

How we got here

The academic publishing giant Elsevier started in 1880 as a small Dutch company and expanded to America in 1940. 

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After World War II, the U.S. government heightened its interest in scientific research, increasing funding to accelerate projects like the space race. Elsevier took notice, and started to accumulate an inventory of academic journals, which up until that point were widely controlled by scientific societies of specific disciplines. 

After a merger in 1970, Elsevier assumed a position among the biggest names in the industry.

When the digital age came, Elsevier was ready. In 1991 it started the first online program designed to circulate copyrighted academic research. Since then, it's expanded its digital presence and positioned itself at the forefront of online journal access. 

“That’s when paywalls got out of control,” Nerea said. 

Digitalization starkly changed the economic model. A journal’s paper copy can stay on a library shelf forever, but once it’s online, access depends on monthly or annual bills. 

“They have different means of trying to make money off of their scholarly content. As technology changes and as the world changes, they find new ways,” Westbrooks, the University librarian, said. “They want to monetize the article. They’re a nimble company that can figure out ways to make money." 

Westbrooks added that the approach taken by Elsevier and similar companies conflicts with UNC Libraries' goals. 

“We’re not wired to say, ‘How can we make money off of this?’ That’s not our mission,” she said.

Today, Elsevier controls 16 percent of the social sciences and humanities publishing market and 24 percent of the market for natural and medical sciences. 

But in response to Elsevier’s dominance, Germany and Sweden cut ties with the publishing giant. The University of California system made the same decision when it ended negotiations with the company in March.

Libraries across the world are rebelling against the cog in academia they don’t see as necessary, and instead are pursuing a different model for disseminating academic research: open access.

Open access 

Christopher Nelson is an anthropology professor at UNC and edits a scholarly journal on the subject. He and his board decided to make their work open access, meaning consumers wouldn't need to pay to read it. 

Nelson said they did it “so that the work that we did could be available to anyone, anywhere. So that it wouldn't be behind a paywall.”

UNC Libraries, firm in their opinion that the traditional model dominated by publishers is unhealthy for science, encourage UNC faculty to publish open access. 

“We write to be read,” Westbrooks said. 

Jason Schmitt made a film called "Paywall" about how publishers control the dissemination of science. He chairs the department of communications and media at Clarkson University in New York and advocates for open access research. 

“Everybody that’s at UNC doesn't know what it’s like to not have access,” he said. “We’re perpetuating, in my mind, one of the biggest cultural divides possible and that’s access to damn science.”

When making the movie, Schmitt traveled to places like Nepal, where medical doctors have no way of keeping up with current research because articles can cost more than $40 to access and small villages can’t afford it. 

Schmitt said he thinks Elsevier and other publishers impair science and human progress by hoarding information and hiding it behind a paywall. 

“Synergy cures cancer and ebola faster," Schmitt said. "Synergy does not come from every single person having the same Western mindset.”

If all academics were to make their articles free of charge online, Schmitt said, there would be a healthier and livelier scientific community across the world. 

However, faculty aren't always on board with open access, because earning tenure at universities often involves having material published in the most prestigious journals. And the supply of renowned journals that publish open access is limited. 

Anne Gilliland is the scholarly communications officer for UNC Libraries and works to educate faculty about their options in publishing. 

She said the norm is for the copyright on the research to end up in the publisher’s hands, making it difficult for the author to use their own creation in future work. 

She added that a renewed campaign toward open access had helped to lift stigmas, but faculty still often value name recognition in the journals they submit to, even if their work will be behind a paywall when published. 

“I think a lot of people do get caught in a bind there between their ideals and their desire to keep feeding their families,” Gilliland said. 

Bringing science back 

The internet forced existential crises onto the music and film industries. Since consumers could find content for free online, once-indestructible companies had to adapt to survive. Academic publishers never had to.

In 1995, Forbes ran an article that predicted academic publishers like Elsevier could be the “internet’s first victim.” Instead, publishers found a new model that cemented their dominance, but caused some to worry that university libraries across the country could be crippled in the process. 

Now, UNC Libraries fights to change the system with calls for open access. The current Elsevier contract expires on Dec. 31 this year. 

Updated at 7:45 p.m. on Sept. 19: Elsevier did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel's request for comment by the time of publication on Sept. 18. At 11:57 a.m. on Sept. 19, a spokesperson said in an email that the company is one of the largest open access publishers in the world, and that some authors “prefer paying for publication, so readers have free access to articles, whilst others would rather publish for free.”

Authors can pay fees to publishing companies, often thousands of dollars, to retain copyrights on their research. In this case the author can make the research free to view online.

The spokesperson said submissions to Elsevier’s journals are growing rapidly, and researchers value the many benefits Elsevier provides in the production of scholarly articles.

In response to Elsevier’s statement, UNC Librarian Elaine Westbrooks said in an email: “While Elsevier may call itself an open access publisher, this means that OA is now a supplementary revenue stream for them, with no offsets to the outsized subscription prices they are asking me to pay.”