MU Libraries forced to make large journal cuts for upcoming fiscal year

The university’s library will cut close to 500 academic journals, but from this problem emerges a possible solution.
Books on the shelf of Ellis Library. MU Libraries will have to cut almost 500 academic journals from its collection for the 2020 fiscal year. | Photo by Staff Photographer Kirubel Mesfin.

MU Libraries recently had to cut 495 academic journals for the 2020 fiscal year because of a flat budget.

Academic journal cuts are not new to the libraries at MU or at most other universities. According to the MU Libraries website, in order to keep up with the rising costs of academic journal subscriptions, the university libraries must “cancel titles each year when [their] budget remains flat.”

Shannon Cary, communications officer for MU Libraries, is a spokesperson for the libraries at MU and was vocal on how big of a problem the rising costs of journals are.

“All academic libraries — not just ours — are dealing with increases in inflation to journal prices that go up quite a bit every year,” Cary said. “Our budget from the university is usually flat or sometimes a cut.”

Academic journals are an expensive investment for most libraries. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, MU spent 48% of its library budget in the 2018 fiscal year just to keep up with academic journal subscriptions. This can be detrimental for an institution which, according to the Association of Research Libraries, ranked 102 out of 116 member research university libraries in the 2017-2018 school year in total library expenditures.

Cary expressed that although the university wants to keep as many journals as possible, sometimes cuts have to be made.

“For many years, the university, in order to not have huge cuts, has supplemented our journal budget, but some years they aren’t able to do that,” Cary said. “This is a year that we felt like we had to make some pretty big cuts.”

Decisions on which journals to cut were made by campus librarians and were based on usage and/or whether the journals are available through interlibrary loans. Although they have been cut from the library’s collection, they can still be accessed through loans from other libraries.

“We try to work with other campuses to have shared resources, and sometimes [journal subscriptions are] cheaper if all four [UM System] campuses go in on subscribing to journals,” Cary said. “We should still be able to access most things, it’s just going to take a little longer.”

However, the library has been searching for a more elegant way to fix this issue.

“One way that libraries are looking to solve this problem is to promote more open access journals on campus,” Cary said.

The Open Access Publishing Task Force, a committee created in April 2019, encompassed library staff and faculty from all four UM System campuses and sought new economic models for scholarly communications. The major solution the committee proposed was a transition to an open access style of publishing.

Open access is a publishing option in which researchers can pay a fee to have papers accessible free of charge online, while still publishing through a major academic journal.

James Birchler, curator’s distinguished professor of biological sciences and a former member of the task force, is a researcher at MU and publishes his work often. He understands the situation of academic journals both on the publishers’ and subscribers’ ends. Because of this, he believes that ideally there would be open access to research but knows that financially this isn’t a viable option currently.

“I think most people who are publishing the results of their research are philosophically on board with open access … financially it becomes an issue,” Birchler said. “Now, as an individual researcher, I can opt to publish in those journals that sell subscriptions to the university, either as a regular publication or as open access. But if you publish open access it will cost you an extra $2,000, or some journals will charge you up to $5,000.”

Although in an ideal world all information, like Birchler’s research, would be open access, due to financial constraints, researchers have to balance out paying for open access or paying for a graduate student assistant.

“The place where we get money to pay for open access is from research grants,” Birchler said. “So if we publish a number of papers, then you’re putting that money out there into open access that you aren’t going to be able to use to pay salaries and pay for research. So people pick and choose in terms of what articles that they really want to pay for open access.”

While perhaps a sound plan in the future, open access publishing currently just shifts the burden of budget from libraries to individual researchers.

“If you’re going to cough up 2,000 to 5,000 per paper to have open access it's a wonderful thought, but I’m not sure that’s the best placement of resources,” Birchler said.

Edited by Alex Fulton | afulton@themaneater.com

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