There has been a great deal of interest in the last few days in an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Since it is about open access to knowledge, it seemed unfortunate to me that the article is behind a fee wall, so I have copied the text below, based on the assumption that the Chronicle is actually interested in facilitating a discussion around this issue. (I had to get a colleague to send me the article since I do not subscribe.) Might I suggest to the Publisher that they move the article outside the fee wall as a nod to the importance of access to knowledge.
The Knowledge for All Proposal (about which I will write more in the coming weeks) is available on the Robertson Library Website : http://library.upei.ca/k4all.
Hot Type: Canadian University Hopes to Lead Fight Against High Subscription Prices U. of Prince Edward Island
By Jennifer Howard
Famous for mussels, serenity, and as the setting for Anne of Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, the smallest of Canada's provinces, seems an unlikely hotbed of revolution. But at the University of Prince Edward Island, the province's only university, a bit of scholarly-communication revolt is stirring.
On June 15, the university librarian, Mark Leggott, released a campus letter to let the faculty know the institution would not be renewing its subscription to the Web of Science database. Mr. Leggott's letter cited several reasons for the decision: "a challenging fiscal climate," a required three-year contract with price increases every year, a weaker Canadian dollar that would make those increases even harder to bear.
But here are the real fighting words: "Any subscription increase in these challenging times is difficult, but an increase of 120 percent is simply not acceptable," Mr. Leggott wrote. "Accommodating this level of increase lends credence to the vendors' business practices, and we felt it important to make a stand against these practices." Tellingly, the letter cites the recent standoff between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group over journal prices.
Published by Thomson Reuters, Web of Science is a citation index that covers more than 10,000 scholarly journals across a variety of disciplines. It allows users to track what's been cited and how often. Its multiple databases include conference proceedings and open-access journals, too. In the eyes of Mr. Leggott, it's also an overpriced product of a scholarly publishing system that no longer works. That's what he told me when I asked why the university wasn't going to renew.
"We just said enough is enough," he said. "These citation indexes are just not special any more, and we're in a period where financial challenges plus lack of innovation in the [publishing] industry are causing people to say, This just doesn't make sense anymore."
He called it "absolutely critical" that research institutions be franker about their dealings with publishers and their pricing models. That applies to small universities like his as well as to enormous systems like California's.
"We have a tendency to keep our negotiations confidential and quiet, and I think it's the most egregious process we can follow," Mr. Leggott told me. "We have been silent for way too long in letting it be known that this kind of scholarly publishing process is not sustainable."
Awareness and Elbow Grease
So a small Canadian university decides to give a citation index the heave-ho. So what? For one thing, observers nowhere near Prince Edward Island took note of the decision. For instance, the Law Librarian Blog saluted UPEI along with the California system for using their run-ins with publishers to make faculty members aware of how the traditional publishing ecosystem really works—and what it costs. "Most people outside of the librarians and deans do not really 'get' the price thing as it relates to scholarship," the blog observed. "Now they do, at least at UC and UPEI."
As the Law Librarian Blog pointed out, UPEI has done more than just cancel one subscription, and that makes its decision worth keeping tabs on. Mr. Leggott and the library staff took another practical and immediate step: They put together a guide of databases that provide the kind of citation-reference searching that Web of Science does. (The university will acquire a pay-as-you-go license to Web of Science for faculty members who really can't find a good alternative.)
Another gambit is far more ambitious. Mr. Leggott sees the Web of Science decision as an opportunity "to raise awareness around all these issues and see if there's any interest in building a different kind of approach." What he has in mind is "a Wikipedia-type index to scholarly literature" called Knowledge for All. Open source and freely available, the index would be built and maintained by libraries—not just UPEI's but as many as are willing to pitch in.
Mr. Leggott envisions Knowledge for All as an index built "using the elbow grease of the institution rather than the increasingly dwindling resources we have," he told me. "The goal here would be to index all of what can be identified as scholarly, whether it's peer reviewed or not peer reviewed."
Mr. Leggott is circulating the proposal to library consortia in Canada and abroad, hoping to get 10 to 20 institutions to sign on as founding members to hire a project manager and get the project in gear. It could mean only a modest outlay of money and staff time for participating institutions. The librarian estimates that there are some 40,000 science journals published every year; if 3,000 libraries pitched in, he calculates, "then each of them would have to index 15 journal titles." Instead of paying money to commercial publishers for products such as Web of Science, libraries could put their resources to work indexing the scholarly literature themselves.
Mr. Leggott says his job now is to convince other librarians that the idea has legs. His message: "Rather than paying into a dysfunctional scholarly-publishing environment, the library community should take the lead and make sure that knowledge that's created largely by scholarly communities is not locked behind a pay wall."
Whatever happens with the Knowledge for All project, it will be interesting to see whether UPEI's decision to ditch one of its standard databases will embolden librarians elsewhere to take similar measures. We're still waiting for one side or the other to blink in the California-Nature standoff, and what happens there will surely have a ripple effect. A big system like California's, with its combined research heft, has a decent chance of getting publishers to pay attention. Will publishers and other libraries sit up and take notice when a small university like UPEI says it's had enough?
Content providers may not care that much—if the action is limited to one small customer. Mr. Leggott says he has heard very little from Web of Science, and no details on how it will make sure that UPEI has access to Web of Science materials it has already paid for. "There seems to be little time or concern for a little institution like UPEI," Mr. Leggott told me.
But if UPEI can get enough other institutions to make Knowledge for All a serious experiment—or if it helps inspire other colleges and universities to take their own stands with publishers—its influence could exceed its size.
"A small university can have a big impact when there's a little bit of vision there," Mr. Leggott said.