"The Fighting Varsity" - "Hail, Purdue!!" and All You Other Libraries out There

By Helfer, Doris Small | Searcher, March 1998 | Go to article overview

"The Fighting Varsity" - "Hail, Purdue!!" and All You Other Libraries out There


Helfer, Doris Small, Searcher


The December 29, 1997 New York Times carried a story near and dear to my heart and those of most academic librarians these days. On December 1, 1997 a meeting occurred between Purdue University faculty and Russell White, President of Elsevier Science Inc., a division of Elsevier Wolters Klouwer, plc. At this meeting Mr. White told the faculty at Purdue that they could lock in the prices on 350 online publications, which now supplement the company's entire list of 1,200 scientific and technical journals, at an annual increase of only 9.5 percent per year, but only if they agreed to sign-up for three more years. Purdue declined Elsevier's generous offer.

I guess Purdue finally reached a financial breaking point, a point where they felt unwilling and unable to absorb anything close to those cost increases, especially when the faculty considered the quality of what they would get as not worth the money. Even before White's visit, Purdue, which still spends more than $1 million a year on Elsevier journals, had canceled 88 of the 803 titles it once received. Among those axed were Brain Research at a hefty annual subscription rate of $14,919, Mutation Research at a paltry $7,378, and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry for only $8,506 per annum.

When the cost of a journal reaches such heights, people begin looking very hard at the quality of what they get for that money. Professor Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who attended the meeting, was quoted in The New York Times article as saying Elsevier journals tend to be "second- and third-tier. None are in the top tier in chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the fields I read in. If we lose Elsevier journals in those fields, we will be OK. Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?" he asked. Russell White of Elsevier Science, also quoted in the same article, countered, "We have some outstanding brand names with some really good articles of interest to scientists and researchers throughout the world."

The Problem

Universities and research libraries buy about 95 percent of Elsevier's science journals and have accepted in the past price increases on subscriptions that have averaged in the double-digit range for years. Renewal rates for their subscriptions run at a rate well above 90 percent. Professors strive to enhance knowledge in their fields and to further their own careers in a universe where "publish or perish" has been the rule for a long time. The competition is so great that Reed demands, and gets, copyrights to the articles from the authors, and in most cases pays them NOTHING. Needing publication in prestigious publications to win tenure, and to add the reflected glory of that prestige to their university's reputation, professors naturally want the journals in which they publish carried in their university library.

Nevertheless, librarians have been screaming for a long time that they can no longer afford those periodicals in their libraries, especially at constantly increasing prices. Serial suscriptions have increased far beyond any cost of inflation or fluctuations in the currency markets. According to an e-mail message Emily Mobley, Dean of Libraries at Purdue, sent to the Directors of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), what triggered the Purdue University meeting was a report from a faculty committee at Purdue recommending that university administrators at the highest levels should meet with like representatives from the publishing industry to express the University's concern about continually escalating serials prices and the effect such actions were having on scholarly communications.

Purdue has had an ad hoc committee on serials decisions, chaired by the Dean of Libraries, for some time. A year ago, that committee embarked on a serials review project designed to cut a mandated $600,000 from serials expenses. The committee targeted the more expensive publishers. …

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