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A Message from Robert Darnton

"An Issue That Goes to the Heart of the Academic Enterprise"

June 29, 2010—Harvard's University Library Council has followed recent exchanges between the University of California and the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) with great care. NPG's own account of its pricing policies is cause for concern among libraries everywhere: they report an average annual increase of 7%, which far exceeds the rate of inflation and represents a doubling of costs over a ten-year period. At that rate, NPG journals will soon be unaffordable.

NPG is increasing its prices at the moment when we can least afford them: far from enjoying a commensurate increase in library budgets, the Harvard Libraries have been forced to reduce expenditures, and the University's long-term finances make it unlikely that we can bear such increases in the future.

To be sure, prices vary from journal to journal—and according to the deals struck with individual libraries. NPG states that other libraries will not face the immediate 400% increase reported by the University of California, but there is no denying that enormous increases have occurred everywhere.

In general terms, electronic publications carry low marginal costs beyond first-copy expenses. The academic community substantially underwrites these first-copy costs by doing the research, writing the articles, providing the peer review, and serving on editorial boards. Having provided this labor—nearly all of it free of charge—academics find it difficult to perceive the factors that justify such steep price increases.

The current situation is not sustainable. The University Library Council therefore commends our colleagues at the University of California as they pursue greater transparency in the economics of scholarly communication, an issue that goes to the heart of the academic enterprise.

Robert Darnton
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor
and Director of the University Library
for the University Library Council of Harvard University

The University Library Council is the coordinating body for policy and planning in the Harvard University Library. It comprises the heads and senior managers of the Harvard University Library organization, the librarian and associate librarians of Harvard College, and the chief librarians of the University's graduate and professional schools.

 

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