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Faculty senate committee discusses university libraries access to intellectual property.

March 17, 2023

Future of Scholarly Communications Committee Promotes Equitable, Sustainable Academic Publications at Faculty Senate Meeting

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The Ad Hoc Committee: Future of Scholarly Communications presented at the Wednesday, March 8 Faculty Senate meeting in Schwartz Auditorium at Rockefeller Hall to discuss the effects of large corporations on academic publications.

To kick off the meeting, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks, who serves as the co-chair of the committee, emphasized the significance of Cornell libraries. Westbrooks noted that the University’s libraries preserve history and culture for future generations, including Cornell history and culture.

“Now you often hear ‘any person, any study,’” Westbrooks said. “The reason we know that is because of Cornell archives. It’s our job to preserve what Ezra Cornell actually said.”

Westbrooks added that Cornell libraries aim to build collections that both today’s scholars and future generations can utilize, including a collection of journals and databases accessible to the entire campus. She also noted that libraries promote academic curiosity and success through the services and information they provide.

Westbrooks also described the importance of libraries to represent all backgrounds and perspectives, as libraries are the stewards of facts. She noted that the presence of controversial material in libraries needs to be protected.

“It is clear that a democratic society works best when information flows freely,” Westbrooks said. “The library is a place for pluralism. It is a place where we collect all things for all people, all disciples, all sides.”

Following Westbrooks’s presentation, Prof. K. Max Zhang, engineering, who serves on the University Faculty Library Board, introduced the Ad Hoc Committee: Future of Scholarly Communications. According to Zhang, the committee is made up of roughly 15 members, representing both Cornell’s library system and academic side.

The committee details seven charges towards more accessible scholarly journals. Zhang summarizes these charges into four categories — assessing the current publishing model, evaluating new publishing models, identifying the University’s role in new models and reporting to the faculty about the problems of for-profit publishing.

Westbrooks then explained that this committee was formed in response to a changing academic landscape.

“I think when many of us got into our field of study, the world was very different,” Westbrooks said. “When journals were prints, before the internet existed, when scholarly societies and learned societies were strong, robust institutions — that is just not the case anymore.”

According to Westbrooks, five multinational companies — SAGE Publishing, Wiley, Taylor & Francis Group, Elsevier and Springer Nature — control over 50 percent of current academic publishing.

“I want to be clear that I do not believe that publishers are inherently evil, or bad,” Westbrooks said. “What I really want to bring home is the fact that this is not good for science, it’s not good for scholarship and it’s not good for innovation to have a small set of multinational companies, that we call an oligopoly, control all the academic publishing in the world.”

Westbrooks described a shift that started in the 1970s. Companies and societies that published journals have been increasingly transferring their journals to these multinational publishers, and when this happens, academic journals increase in price exponentially.

Westbrooks labeled the current publishing system a “gift economy” since the publisher does very little work within the research process despite economically benefiting from the output. Faculty and researchers produce content, consume content and facilitate peer review. Furthermore, taxpayers fund institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which conduct research that publishers can acquire.

Westbrooks noted that in 2017, Elsevier experienced a 37 percent profit margin, higher than Amazon and JPMorgan Chase.

“The largest academic publishers are reaping enormous profits, from knowledge from which the public largely pays. It’s a business model that keeps the knowledge out of the hands of the public,” Westbrooks said. “This is not sustainable for libraries. And it’s definitely not sustainable for higher education.”

Furthermore, Westbrooks explained that publishers inflict inflation annually on libraries. According to her, Cornell’s libraries experience an inflation rate close to 10 percent.

“Books inflate, journals inflate, databases inflate,” Westbrooks said. “And the library has to manage this year after year.”

Westbrooks described that the committee recommends that the library invest in moving scholarly communication toward a more sustainable, equitable and open direction and launch a campaign to spread awareness about the consequences of the current scholarly publication system. On the faculty end, Westbrooks said that they can also build awareness about the modern publication system and that authors should typically possess the copyright for their own publications and researchers should utilize and support open-access research.

“For us as a society, I believe that Cornell should be the place that finds a solution, that we should be the leader,” Westbrooks said. “If we can’t figure this out at Cornell, I don’t know if anybody’s going to be able to figure this out.”