Library town halls wrap up with questions about a post-journal future

What would happen if the University of Utah Libraries cancelled their subscriptions to major academic journals?

There are other ways the libraries provide articles about research—interlibrary loan, JSTOR, and open access journals. But all those options pose complications, and costs, of their own.

The last of four virtual town halls to discuss the libraries’ future were held Dec. 7 and 9, and questions from dozens of participants got down to one of the thorniest issues facing the institutions: the cost of journal subscriptions.

Watch recordings of the presentation and discussions from #3 and #4.

College of Humanities graduate student E Hopf noted that most students and professors have shifted to online sources, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Almost everything I used this semester was coming either from e-books I got access to through the library, or journal articles,” he said. “Most of my professors were using articles from JSTOR. Where is JSTOR in this?”

With journal subscription costs increasing 4 to 7 percent each year, an average of $250,000 a year, the libraries’ budgets are being squeezed to the point of breaking. However, cutting the expense of subscribing to the four largest journal bundlers—Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis—would require developing several backup systems to provide the most up-to-date research to students, faculty and staff. The University of California system walked away from its journal subscriptions a year ago and has patched together access through interlibrary loan and open access journals.

Library Taskforce Co-chair Harriet Hopf, a professor in the department of anesthesiology, noted that, while, in a recent survey, UC users expressed continuing support for the decision, more than three-fourths of UC users surveyed reported severe or moderate impact on their ability to get the information they need.

So if all universities end their pricey subscriptions, what would happen? Alternatives like open access journals may not have the same impact as traditional journals in promotion and tenure decisions, one reason adoption has been slow. In addition, open access journals transfer the cost of publication from the user to the author, with publication fees in the range of $1500-$4000. Faculty have to factor the cost of publishing in such journals into their grant submissions, and the costs serve as a barrier to open access publication for many.

“We expected the impact of dropping journal subscriptions to hit over a longer time period, but it’s already apparent,” said Richard Preiss, an associate professor in the English department. “It’s palpable that people are feeling like they can’t get access to the latest research. It’s very sobering. It makes walking away from subscriptions really the last thing you want to do. But we’re also between a rock and a hard place.”

 

The Library Futures Taskforce—co-chaired by Hopf and Preiss—has been charged with reviewing how members of the campus community use library resources, gathering input, and recommending service changes or new ideas for funding. The taskforce will meet over the winter to review input from the town halls and an upcoming digital survey before drafting a report to Dan Reed, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs next spring.