Search Cell or The Lancet, two globally renowned biology and medical science journals, respectively, on Tripod, and they immediately appear under the search results. “Available online,” the search results read. At Swarthmore, institutional affiliation grants students, faculty, and alums free access to countless prominent academic journals. Students often take for granted institutional access to the breadth of information and scholarship available to us with a few clicks. What we often don’t see is the shady, greedy underbelly of academic publishing and access policies. In the United States, tax-payers spend up to $140 billion each year to fund research, the results of which they cannot access for free. High school students’ access to high-quality research journals depends on the financial means and political interest of their respective school district. Small entrepreneurs must spend an exorbitant amount of money to access research that could help inform and direct R&D projects. To fulfill its obligation to equity and social responsibility, as prominently outlined in its mission statement, Swarthmore should support open access practices that provide knowledge and education for people who don’t have institutional access.
As the largest publisher of scholarly journals globally, Elsevier owns approximately 3,000 academic journals, and its articles make up a gargantuan 18 percent of the world’s research output. In 2020, Elsevier’s revenue was $3.7 billion, 76 percent of which comes from subscriptions, and its parent company’s profits margin was at 21.7 percent. Academics who have to pay to publish their articles in these journals and peer reviewers who maintain the quality of the journal do not see a cent of this money. Meanwhile, the public must pay hundreds of dollars for annual subscriptions for each of Elsevier’s academic journals, while academic institutions spend upwards of millions of dollars for an annual subscription. The University of Virginia, for example, paid $1.834 million for their Elsevier subscription in 2018 and predicted to spend $2.48 million for a subscription in 2025. This is an increase of 55 percent, even though the number of accessible journals is not increasing at nearly the same rate.
The University of California system, which is home to 27,500 researchers who generate a tenth of all academic papers in the United States, decided to part ways with Elsevier in 2019 to cut down the $11 million they spend every year on subscriptions and to promote open access publishing. As the university stated in its announcement, “Open access would eventually mean fewer subscriptions for Elsevier … The transition the industry is making to open access is a feasible path forward, so that more universities don’t cancel their licenses for the same reasons we did.”
Earlier this year, UC announced a landmark deal with Elsevier, whereby “all research with a UC lead author published in Elsevier’s extensive portfolio of hybrid and open access journals will be open access by default.” This means that researchers across the UC system are no longer limited to going through the UC Press to publish open access content and can now freely distribute their work to Elsevier’s global audience. The institution, rather than readers, foots the bill for access to research. Though this solution does not solve the underlying problem of corporate greed in academic publishing, it’s a step in the direction of equal access to information for the public.
Though not many universities have followed in UC’s footsteps, some have started to transition away from “big deal” subscriptions that are comparable to a discounted subscription of a large bundle of journals. Instead, these universities have opted into a more expensive “à la carte” program that grants them the freedom to pick and choose specific journals deemed most valuable to the institution. Many universities have also announced open source resolutions that allow faculty to grant the institution they work for permission to make their research publicly available. These institutions include not only Harvard and MIT, but also liberal arts colleges including Amherst and Bryn Mawr.
We urge Swarthmore College to consider a similar policy that commits to publishing research open access by mandating that student and faculty research be freely available to the general public. The college’s mission states that as an institution, it is committed to peace, equity, and social responsibility. To this end, it is backwards to continue allowing closed-access publishing and therefore implicitly endorsing predatory business models like that of Elsevier that profit from withholding knowledge from people without substantial means and from exploiting taxpayer dollars, researchers’ dedication, and public institutions. Equity and social responsibility at large extend beyond the immediate reaches of the college. As an institution of higher education, we must question whether the college is truly committed to furthering equity and undertaking social responsibility until it also commits to improving access to knowledge and information for people without access to elite institutions. Over 800 institutions worldwide, from tour-de-force research universities to small liberal arts colleges, have committed to this goal by enacting open access policies. What’s stopping Swarthmore?