April 10, 2011

Full Disclosure on University Contracts

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The University’s decision to no longer sign non-disclosure agreements with publishers who insist on keeping the terms of their contracts private is an important practical and symbolic achievement. As the first major private institution to initiate a policy change on this issue, the University did not wait for its peers to confirm what it believed to be right and took a step that will have a considerable impact on Cornell’s library system moving forward. However, for the University’s decision to be most effective, other schools must commit to the same change.

What the University stands to gain from the new arrangement entirely outweighs what it could potentially lose. Cornell only dropped a single publication whose publisher — The American Psychological Association — refused to forgo a non-disclosure agreement. Nearly all other publications agreed to the change. It also does not appear likely that the University will lose out on many, if any, new publishers in the future, especially if more colleges institute the same policy. If not signing confidentiality agreements becomes the standard for all universities, publishers will be compelled to comply.

Currently, publishers hold much of the bargaining power. It is virtually impossible for Cornell to judge the fair market price when other universities are not able to reveal the terms of their contracts with certain publishers, allowing publishers, in many cases, to hold the upper hand in the bargaining process. The new policy will allow universities to compare deals with publishers and foster more competitiveness in contract negotiations.

In addition, this initiative certainly is a step in the right direction towards greater accountability and transparency in University decision-making. The student body and faculty have a right to know where Cornell’s resources are being dedicated and the University should be held accountable for signing expensive contracts that go beyond the fair market price.

Moving forward, for this policy decision to bring significant change, it is time for other universities to follow Cornell’s lead and step up to the plate, in order to begin a trend of fostering greater accountability between universities and the industries with which they work.