UNC Cuts Back On Journals, Cites Burdensome Licensing Agreement

Due to rising costs and an inability to work out a more economical agreement, UNC has discontinued a consortium license with other area universities that would have given them lower prices – but unacceptable conditions – from journal publishing giant Reed Elsevier. The decision means that faculty and students no longer will have access to a number of scientific and medical publications.

The school’s contract through the Triangle Research Libraries Network (comprised of member universities UNC, N.C. State and Duke University) with Elsevier expired at the end of 2003, as school officials and librarians had been working to negotiate a better deal. The decision to discontinue their relationship ultimately hinged on the company’s refusal to budge on a stipulation that schools agree to a “bundle” deal, whereby the schools would be forced to subscribe to several costly journals that they did not need.

UNC still will have licenses to specific electronic journals they choose from Elsevier, but they will cost more money and force the University to cancel a number of titles to afford the higher price tag. Elsevier is the biggest, but not the only, journal publisher the Triangle Research Libraries Network dealt with.

Elsevier insisted the universities in the network adhere to a strict no-cancellation policy that would last over the life of their license. School officials deemed that this agreement would unfairly disadvantage journals from other publishers, forcing them to cancel many of these subscriptions to pay for Elsevier’s bundle package.

An inflexible price structure also led to the decision that another contract simply could not be afforded. Elsevier’s annual cost increases mean that the Triangle Research Libraries Network currently spends $4.5 million a year on its journals, with roughly a 6.5 percent average price increase scheduled for 2004.

The rising cost of academic journals was a major issue last year, as budget cuts forced the University to decide which journals were essential for research needs and which could be pared down.

The loss of these journals is particularly hard for the Health Sciences Library, which relies on its collections of the latest fields of research as an integral resource in attracting and retaining top researchers, faculty and students to the UNC medical school.

On average, a medical journal costs the library $7,000 where other scholarly journals average $3,000. A recent count found the Health Sciences Library had 3,677 serials and 2,300 online journals.

“We have to make some very tough decisions about what journals to keep and what to cancel,” said Carol Jenkins, director of the Health Sciences Library. “Almost all of our Elsevier titles are very heavily used and are needed by our faculty and students, so this will be difficult.”

To deal with the rising cost of journals, the University is talking with faculty about working to change the publishing system. They are encouraging faculty to publish in “open access” journals that are affordable and accessible to everyone without a subscription.

Many faculty and graduate students fear doing this because they believe it will hurt their chances of being awarded grants or winning promotions. In higher education circles, the journals in which faculty publish often are a measure of the quality of the research.

Cornell and Harvard also have made news recently for similar decisions to cancel large numbers of Elsevier-owned journals. Elsevier owns 1,200 journals, making it the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals.

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