April 5, 2011

Cornell Library Stands Up to Publishers

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Several universities have expressed support for Cornell University Library’s decision, announced March 21, to no longer do business with publishers who insist on keeping the terms of their contracts private.

In taking action against vendors who demand “nondisclosure agreements,” Cornell became the first large private university to join a nationwide movement for transparency in publishing agreements. The library hopes the change will “promote openness and fairness among libraries licensing scholarly resources,” according to Cornell’s announcement.

“All types of libraries can make better decisions in the purchase of scholarly information if there is general knowledge about terms and conditions of licenses shared among them,” said Charles Lowry, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries.

Columbia University, University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University have also all expressed their support for Cornell’s new policy, according to Peter Hirtle, senior policy advisor for the Cornell library, and many other libraries have “indicated their commitment to similar terms,” according to a statement from University Librarian Anne Kenney.

According to Hirtle, the library began considering the new policy after the association of research libraries issued a formal statement in June 2009 in which it encouraged its members not to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Hirtle said that libraries should be allowed to discuss the costs of their contracts.

“It’s very hard for librarians. If people ask us a question, we like to be able to give an answer. Being in a situation where we have to say ‘we can’t talk about this’ is very bad,” Hirtle said.

Hirtle added that he does not expect the University’s decision to significantly reduce the number of available materials as publishers reject the removal of the non-disclosure clause from their contracts.

“In the very unlikely event that Cornell loses electronic access to some resources, there are a variety of other ways for students to gain access to these materials,” Alex Mellnik grad student and member of the University Library Faculty Board said. “Future cost savings from this policy may also allow the library to expand its collections beyond what would otherwise be possible.”

Since the adoption of Cornell’s policy, only The American Psychological Association has refused to remove the nondisclosure clause from its agreement with the University. Although the association publication’s, Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, will no longer be available to students electronically, a print version will be available, Hirtle said.

Public institutions must disclose information about their contracts under the Freedom of Information Act. Since Cornell’s library is considered private, it is allowed to withhold information on its contracts. However, by rejecting these nondisclosure agreements, it is striving for openness, Saylor said.

“Primarily, it’s a principle about being open about our contracts and licenses,” he said.

In hopes of spreading fairness and creating an environment in which scholarly institutions can work more collaboratively, the library is encouraging other libraries to cease signing any contracts with vendors who insist on nondisclosure clauses, Saylor said.

“The danger is that some people think that if we take collective action that could be an anti-trust violation. So we’re not doing that. We’re saying here’s our policy and we hope other libraries will follow,” Hirtle said.

“I personally strongly support it in the interest of transparency,” said Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, and chair of the University Faculty Library Board.

Original Author: Jesella Zambrano