Researchers at some universities have become dependent on illegal sources for journal articles because of how expensive subscriptions have become, Heather Joseph, an advocate for legal open access, told National Public Radio last month.
“When there is a journal article I need but Brown does not subscribe, I just ask a colleague to send me a PDF,” said a professor in the social sciences, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of legal repercussions. “But this is for research purposes only.”
While most professors did not report that they share journal articles with researchers at other universities, the recent introduction of the two-step verification process is a security measure that protects against this sort of illegal activity.
Ravi Pendse, head of Computing and Information Services, said that recent phishing scams prompted students and faculty members to allow individuals outside of the University community to access library resources. The two-step verification process will significantly reduce piracy of this kind, Pendse said.
Pendse said that the library and CIS work together closely to ensure that students and faculty members have full access and good security when it comes to academic resources, such as journal subscriptions and databases. “These scholarly articles and proper dissemination of those articles is such a critical thing. It is great to see that collaboratively all of us are protecting our scholarly resources,” Pendse added.
The collection of journals to which the University subscribes is determined by Director of Technical Services Boaz Nadav-Manes and Associate University Librarian for Research and Outreach Ned Quist, among others. They solicit help from the departments, look at data collected by CIS on the usage of different journals and ask for recommendations from faculty members, graduate students, undergraduate students and administrators.
The library occasionally contacts professors to gauge the value of certain journals in the event that they receive data that the journal has not been frequently downloaded, Boaz said.
“In all fairness to the University, if no one is reading it, then we shouldn’t be buying it,” said Sheila Blumstein, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.
Some of the scientific journals can cost up to $20,000 per year, and purchasing them is a commitment, Quist said.
“On occasion, we do cancel things, but we have to in order to make room for new things,” Quist added.
“Things have gotten better in large measure because of electronic access. Prior to that we didn’t always have all of the journals,” Blumstein said. “I’ve never really had much of a problem, or if something isn’t in the library, there’s interlibrary loan. I’ve never had to go to another institution.”
The University belongs to a consortium, including Penn, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and various Rhode Island institutions, from which students and faculty members can borrow books and electronic resources at any time.
“I visited a couple other schools, and without naming them, I was appalled at how bad their resources were and how much better ours are,” Blumstein said. “We get a listing of what’s available from a library representative. If there’s a journal you particularly need or want, you could request it.”
Blumstein added that it is often difficult to find articles from before 1995 online. But if she wants to find a piece, it is almost always possible to do so legally.
James Valles, the chair of the physics department, said that he rarely feels he does not have access to a journal and that his colleagues also feel that they are well-supported by the library resources.
Valles said that he uses a website called Arxiv, run by the Cornell University Library, to legally access pre-print and pre-published versions of scientific papers. “People can read them and start working with those papers the moment they appear.”
The library spends over $11 million per year on its collections; about $8 million of this goes to journals and databases, Nadav-Manes said. The University’s library budget is divided into three parts: journals, which come both individually and in packages, databases and books. The library purchases subscriptions to 400 databases each year, some of which include only bibliographic information, while others grant full access to articles.
“Seventy percent of our budget is now going towards journals and databases,” Quist said. The library currently subscribes to about 75,000 journal titles and approximately 97 percent of these are electronic journals, Nadav-Manes said.
Though there is a constant increase in the prices of journals every year, there were no unusual increases this year, he said. “It’s more than inflation quite often, especially with the (journal) packages, which is a chunk of our expense every year,” he added.
Cornelia Dean, a senior writer in the science department of the New York Times and a lecturer in environmental science, said that the cost of journals “has been a huge issue for people trying to do research from institutions who do not have access to this kind of money. It’s an issue we periodically review in the science department at the Times.”
To overcome this legally, researchers have advocated open-access publishing, popularized by the Public Library of Online Science, Dean added.
The PLOS uses the Creative Commons Attributions License to publish scholarly articles and makes them accessible to the general public for free. Anyone can access and make use of these articles, as long as they are properly cited. The PLOS website has links to a suite of science journals on topics such as biology, medicine, computational biology, genetics and pathogens.
“Public access is a big issue,” Blumstein said. “People want to know about things, and they should have the right to know.”
“The publishing business, the art of getting a manuscript through the process, is basically the same no matter what. It goes through peer review and can take from 30 days to half a year — the same whether it’s a subscription journal or an open-access journal,” said David Knutson, public relations manager of PLOS.
Many institutions, such as the University of California system, as well as government organizations, have required that any research they fund be published in open-access journals like PLOS, Knutson said.
“Content is king. Don’t be fooled by any title on any journal,” he added. “If it’s good research, it’s good research. Some of it is freely available to you.”