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Academic Community Discusses Access to Journals in Wake of Suicide
02/28/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

It's been about a month since the suicide of Boston-based internet activist and developer Aaron Swartz. he was facing a possible 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for allegedly downloading academic papers from JSTOR, a major aggregator for peer-reviewed academic research publications. Typically, only people who have access to an academic library can access these kinds of peer-reviewed papers and journals which come with a hefty subscription price. Swartz's family said that the ongoing federal prosecution on behalf of MIT for unauthorized access to the papers through its system, drove the 26 year old to take his own life. This tragedy, along with a growing boycott of one of the biggest academic publishing houses in the industry is shining a spotlight on the price of information and how its distribution affects students, universities, and the public. Professors and librarians at the University of Maine have joined the discussion.

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The University of Maine subscribes to about 20,000 academic serials. The average price is between $1,000 and $3,000 for a single subscription.

"Over the last 25 years, serial expenditures have increased over 400%," said Deborah Rollins, Head of Collections Services with the Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono.

In an economic climate full of cliffs and sequesters, a public university like the University of Maine is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to making those kinds of purchases. Dean of Libraries Joyce Rumery said justifying the subscriptions to so many journals is an annual part of the budget discussion.

"Our faculty and students need those resources for their research, for grants, for other purposes," Rumery said. "It's an integral part of our collection, and really a very large part of our collection."

About 85% of the library's acquisitions budget is spent on these scholarly publications. But with the publishers' price tags steadily rising year after year, the question now is how much is too much? Deborah Rollins with the Fogler collection said it's not unheard of for a subscription to A single chemistry journal to cost $24,000 dollars for one year.

The University of Maine is not alone in questioning such costs. Harvard University called the situation between publishing houses and academic institutions "untenable" last year, and has begun encouraging its researchers not to publish in journals that charge such high fees. The University of Maine stopped short of an official position, but several of its professors have signed a pledge to boycott one of the biggest academic publishing houses, Elsevier. Oceanography professor Peter Jumars is one of them. He described the Dutch publishing giant as a monopoly.

"And the only way to break a monopoly is with collective action," Jumars said. "One person deciding not to use Elsevier isn't going to do the trick."

So far, more than 13,000 professors and academics around the world have pledged not to publish their research with Elsevier. Instead, more academics are choosing to publish in so-called "open access" journals, where anyone can read the research for free, usually online. Some for-profit publishers are cashing in on this by allowing authors to make their research available as open access, but that author must then pay a fee to help the publisher make up for the lost revenue. Jumars isn't happy with any of the solutions so far. For-profit companies are price gouging, he said, but the open access community isn't picking up the costs associated with publishing either.

"And they're undercutting the responsible scientific society," said Jumars. "So, it's a real mess out there in scientific publishing right now."

But some public university professors, like new media specialist Jon Ippolito have a different take on the open access model.

"My salary is being paid by normal tax payers and the fruit of my research it seems to me should going back and be accessible to the people who paid for it," Ippolito said. "It's not just a matter of economic fairness though it's also a matter of getting the most eyeballs on the evidence and research and innovations, so that our collective talents can be brought to bear to make a brighter future for all of us."

Tom Reller, vice president of Global Corporate Relations for Elesvier was not available for comment, but sent a statement saying that the company believes that tax payer funded research should be available: "to as many people as can benefit from it." He wrote that a research journal is also a "value-added" product on which the company spends it's own time and money, therefore they can't just give it away.

The only thing that all parties seem to agree on is that knowledge is power, and in the digital age, it's still not clear who controls it.

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