Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
There is an insidious, creeping issue that affects our academic lives at Amherst College and the lives of academics around the world. Yet a potential solution to this problem is being rendered at our small college’s library. The problem to which I am referring is the broken state of academic publishing, and the solution is a small library-based press for open-access scholarly works in the humanities and social sciences recently founded by the College. The Amherst College Press is the brainchild of Bryn Geffert, Amherst’s librarian, who perceives the state of academic publishing to be so dreadful that he wishes to engender changes in the industry to further access for all.
In my estimation, Geffert’s assessment is right. Libraries pay through the nose for academic resources such as print and online copies of scholarly journals, many of which go unused. We are fortunate to attend a school that has the resources to provide access to many publications, but for many individuals and organizations, the price of subscription is prohibitively expensive. This leads to two problems, one philosophical and one fiscal. On a fiscal level, this sort of price barrier effectively curtails access to scholarship for the vast majority of people. When more institutions decide they cannot purchase subscriptions, publishing companies loose revenue, putting themselves in fiscal danger. On a philosophical level, sharing and collaboration are the means by which human knowledge is expanded. To limit access to publications is to go against this academic instinct. If you have ever read an academic paper that seems poorly constructed (I know I have), or seen a publication that obviously did not undergo rigorous editing, Bryn Geffert has an answer for you. He writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, “[c]ommitments to scholarship, to quality, healthy disciplines, even to honesty, take a back seat to binding something—anything….” In the face of these challenges, publishing companies are taking shortcuts to turn a profit; they charge more, they print less, and they accept shoddy work and sell it to the academic world. This affects all of us. Authors, publishers, and the academic public are all losers in this unfortunate chain of events. Amherst College pays for publications that are decreasing in quality and academic value. Students are now forced to work with less, and authors are being prodded and over-extended for the sake of publication. This is problematic. But are the consumers of these goods, namely libraries, empowered to change this inherently flawed system?
I was recently speaking with a friend whose father is a college professor and writes academic literature. As a medievalist, his audience is rather small, yet there is still a demand for his scholarship. His specialty is medieval literature, especially Dante’s Inferno. His book is a two hundred-page assessment of the inconsistencies in the work, and it is available for about fifty dollars on Amazon. Unfortunately, few copies have sold and neither the author nor the publisher has seen much monetary profit. My friend also asserts that his father would have been interested in publishing his work in an open-access format if given the chance. This a perfect example of how all parties, especially students and author, stand to benefit from change in the publishing industry. The sector is ripe for change.
Geffert points out that no party knows what libraries need more than libraries themselves, and he believes that open-access publishing is the route we need to take to achieve the lofty goal of total dissemination of academic information. Following in the footsteps of larger schools such as the University of Michigan (although we’re on a smaller scale), Geffert wishes to create an open-access press that provides an online platform for scholarly works that he argues can reach a “heretofore unimaginable readership.” This boon for authors is accompanied by what is promised to be close editorial support, one part of the industry Geffert perceived to be deficient in his Chronicle of Higher Education article of March 20 2011. But despite the promise of Geffert’s ideal, in reality the operation is hopelessly insolvent (the Amherst College Press website admits as much): the money to fund the press comes only from two repurposed salaries in the library’s budget.
The reason our librarian is willing to go into the red is that he anticipates a tipping point: When enough schools establish open-access presses, it will become redundant to spend money on journals. Unfortunately, this is contingent solely on the willingness of other institutions to make the same fiscal sacrifice for the common academic good. In other words, the new system will prevail if and only if altruism also prevails, a virtue not always abundant during times of economic uncertainty. Despite the undoubtedly well-intentioned project, any reasonable person must admit the possibility that we may never reach a tipping point. We could languish at the cutting edge. We could urge other institutions to join us, but be left hanging when they do not take the risk. Many institutions are far less endowed than Amherst College and may opt to not pursue such a model. Geffert himself characterizes his brainchild as “wildly idealistic.” The word “quixotic” comes to mind. I may be cynical for believing that other institutions will be more wary of this model, but this cynicism deserves consideration in an assessment of the planned proliferation of open-access library presses. This is not to say that I am opposed to the Amherst College Press. In fact, I am overwhelmingly impressed and touched that our college is committed to universal access to scholarship. I would just encourage caution as the Press proceeds. I hope Amherst can lead by example and bring more schools to take the leap toward open-access. As an educational institution, we have an obligation to promote the free exchange of ideas; yet in considering our own self-interest, we must walk a fine line as we proceed.