llustrations by Meilena Sanchez and Mac Mansfield-Parisi

Publishing company monopolizes libraries’ budget

February 19, 2020

During the UVM SGA meeting Jan. 21, Dean of Libraries Bryn Geffert stood before the room and explained his dilemma.

UVM libraries’ contract with Elsevier, a scientific literature publishing company, grants UVM affiliates access to their ScienceDirect journals. Due to this contract, Geffert said the libraries had to cut over 700 of Elsevier’s competitor journals,  and cut book purchasing in half.

“We pay Elsevier $1.8 million a year for the single product that consumes 25% of our budget,” Geffert said. “We can’t afford to pay that, yet at the same time, this is a package of materials that is absolutely essential for faculty and students to do their work. That’s the rock in the hard place where we sit right now.”

Geffert said the contract hurts social science  and humanities departments due to book purchasing cutbacks. ScienceDirect exclusively owns 2,500 journals in the science and medical fields, which allows Elsevier to increase their prices above the rate of inflation.

“If you want literature in the field, you can only find some of that literature in these journals,” Geffert said. “Many people have observed that Elsevier holds something like monopolistic power in some disciplines.”

For many UVM students and faculty, the resources Elsevier owns are essential for information and research. Sophomore Juliet Malkowski benefits greatly from Elsevier’s services.

“I have used Elsevier, specifically for ScienceDirect,” Malkowski said. “I get excited when I see a ScienceDirect article because it is a reputable source and has an easy to read format.”

Elsevier Director of Communications Andrew Davis stated Elsevier strives to use individual approaches with customers to specifically meet their needs, according to a Feb. 13 email.  He also stated Elsevier provides access to the highest-quality research while enabling open access publishing at an affordable cost.

Though Elsevier provides an easy access system of reaching articles online, UVM libraries cannot share materials from ScienceDirect with parties who are not UVM affiliates.

“Students are shocked when they discover the minute you graduate from UVM, you lose access to ScienceDirect because Elsevier requires us to restrict access to currently enrolled students and faculty members,” Geffert said.

STEPHAN TOLJAN
Dean of Libraries Bryn Geffert gives a presentation on Elsevier at an SGA meeting, Jan. 21. The publishing company reported $3.31 billion of revenue in 2018.

When the Vermont Department of Health asked UVM libraries for access to databases for doctors and practitioners in the state to use, UVM had to deny their request, Geffert said.

While UVM faculty maintain access as long as they work for the University, Elsevier’s lending restrictions can impact their work as well.

“Scholarship is a networked endeavour,” Geffert said. “Professors at UVM are working with professors in India, Siberia and South America, and much of the world lacks [Elsevier’s] literature.”

Instead of publishing with Elsevier, chemistry professor Giuseppe Petrucci publishes his research in a number of independent publishing journals.

“These journals are not affiliated with either Elsevier or the American Chemical Association, or any other more established publishing companies,” Petrucci said. “For a lot of them, I know the folks that started them up, so I know the philosophy behind them.”

Student tuition, federal agencies and philanthropic organizations fund UVM faculty’s scientific research, Geffert said.

However, UVM faculty feel pressured to publish through Elsevier due to its prestige and reputation. Professors then publish through Elsevier without compensation, while also serving on editorial boards and providing extra labor for Elsevier.

While the University of California libraries system recently ended their subscription to Elsevier, legal restrictions prevent UVM libraries from teaming with other libraries to negotiate with Elsevier, Geffert said.

A number of UVM professors have signed a pledge on the website Cost of Knowledge, in which signers agree not to publish in journals owned by Elsevier or work with Elsevier on editorial boards.

Though the contract between Elsevier and UVM’s Libraries continues on, Geffert introduced the possibility of this changing in the future.

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