December 3, 2003

Library Cuts Journals

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The University Library has decided to cancel several hundred of its journal subscriptions to leading science publishing company Elsevier. Previously, the cost of the subscriptions, $1.7 million, had accounted for twenty percent of all Library subscriptions while accounting for only two percent of total journals.

Elsevier, a Netherlands based company, is considered by many to be the industry leader. Rising prices and the practice of bundling together journals has made the costs of doing business prohibitive for Cornell though.

Ross Atkinson, associate University librarian for collections, said the decision was talked about at length over the course of the past year. “[It is what] we feel is in the best interest of students and faculty,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson also pointed out that the cancellation retained some of the more important journals and that the librarians in consultation with faculty members “do not feel that we have lost a whole lot.”

This may be Cornell leading the way for many research universities. According to an article in Nature, Sidney Verba, Harvard University library director, has said it is unlikely that his university will renew their deal with Elsevier.

Atkinson said representatives from Elsevier came to Ithaca last week to discuss the decision. “They may allow us to make small changes,” Atkinson said.

The decision and its reasoning is thoroughly detailed on the University website. “We have tried in these discussions to broker an arrangement that would allow us to cancel some Elsevier titles without such a large price increase to the titles remaining — but Elsevier has been unwilling to accept any of our proposals,” it reads.

Representatives from Elsevier could not be reached and the company has previously declined comment on its negotiations with Cornell to The Sun. However, Eric Merkel-Sobotta, head of Elsevier’s public relations, has said to the press in the past that Elsevier’s subscription rates are rising by less than seven percent each year to cover the cost of expanding content.

Some have pointed to problems with rising prices in the industry as a whole. “Journals are really going to have to start fighting to survive,” said Joseph J. H. Ackerman, William Greenleaf Eliot Professor of Chemistry Chair at Washington University in St. Louis and associate editor of Elsevier’s Journal of Magnetic Resonance.

“All universities simply can’t keep up with rising cost of Journals,” Ackerman said. “Elsevier might be the most egregious offender, I don’t know, but this is something that has been brewing for a long time.”

“Many members of the scientific community feel that these costs [of all scientific journals] are unreasonable. It used to be that faculty had their own personal journals, now its only libraries, and even that is becoming too costly,” Ackerman said. “Many scientific societies have now or are starting up their own journals and are encouraging their members to publish in them.”

Atkinson said he could not say if Elsevier’s position in the market was that of a monopoly, “that is something the Justice Department determines. But it is not like you can go anywhere else.”

Atkinson noted that anyone who still wished to obtain one of the canceled journals through the Cornell libraries could still do so through programs such as Inter-Library Loan and special purchase requests.

“The decision is not an attack on Elsevier, it is not an ideological decision” Atkinson said. “It was strictly based on the bottom line.”

Archived article by Brian Kaviar