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Ray English Presents Second Annual Couper Library Lecture

Director of Oberlin Libraries Speaks on “Liberating Research Through Open Access”

By Caroline Russell O'Shea '07
Posted September 18, 2006
Tags Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture

Ray English, the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, presented the second annual Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture. English spoke about the need for fundamental reform in the system of scholarly communication, and advocated a move toward open access publishing. The Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture, established last year in honor of Richard "Dick" Couper '44, brings a distinguished lecturer to campus each fall to speak on issues related to the College's library or libraries in general.


Dean of the Faculty Joseph Urgo introduced the lecture, speaking about the Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture series and the legacy of Mr. Couper. Colleges are inhabited by many spirits, Urgo remarked. Though he never met Richard Couper in life, Urgo said that he sees Couper's spirit reflected throughout Hamilton, particularly in the many things we do in his name.

Randall Ericson, Hamilton's Couper Librarian, holds a position that was endowed by Couper and his wife Patsy. Ericson introduced Ray English, the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, saying that he has benefited from English's wisdom and has valued his friendship.

English began his lecture by defining what he calls the system of scholarly communication – the system through which academic research and writings are created, evaluated, edited, disseminated and preserved. The traditional system of scholarly communication is not sustainable and is in need of fundamental transformation, English said. He outlined several major problems he sees with the traditional system in his talk: the serials crisis, the monograph crisis, and the permissions crisis. The fundamental problem resulting from all of these crises is a lack of access, both for those readers who want to consume scholarly work and those scholars who want to share their research with others. It's paradoxical, English said, that in today's technological environment, which can provide us with so much information so easily, access to scholarly information is actually declining.

English spoke first about the serials crisis. Scholarly journals have been increasing in price about 8% annually, while libraries' budgets for serials are staying flat or increasing at a much lower rate. This gap is the origin of many of our problems, English said, and the current system makes it likely that the gap will only get larger. Most of the price increases come from the journals that are printed by corporate publishing companies, English said, as opposed to not-for-profit journals published by professional societies and university presses. These more expensive, for-profit journals are not necessarily better, however. English shared data that shows that commercial journals actually have a much higher price per citation of their articles in other scholarly work, suggesting that they have less academic impact for the money. Increasing consolidated corporate control of journals means that the price increases are likely to continue, he said. To cope with the serials crisis, libraries have to either cut their subscriptions to journals or cut their budgets in other areas.

An area where budgets are often cut to deal with increased prices in journals is purchases of specialized books from university presses. This leads to fewer academic book deals by university presses, and reduced print runs of their published titles, which English called "the monograph crisis." He cited a Modern Language Association report that found that outlets for traditional scholarly publishing are declining, making it more difficult for junior faculty to get the book deals that are so important to gaining tenure.

The last problem area English addressed in his talk is the "permissions crisis," a phrase coined by Peter Suber, an advocate for open access to scholarship. Suber uses the term to describe the legal and technological barriers which limit academics access to scholarly writings. English gave the example of professors who are unable to use copies of their own articles in their classes because of copyright and licensing issues. The recent trend toward library consortiums collectively licensing access to electronic journals has some benefits, English said, but can also give individual libraries less control over their subscriptions and budgets. The Copyright Term Extension Act has also meant that scholarly literature is under copyright much longer than in the past, whether or not it has any commercial value.

Overall, English argued, scholarship is a public good – created in the non-profit sector, often funded by taxpayers or other public sources of money, and freely given away by authors – that is controlled by private hands under the current system. Therefore, the system of scholarly communication is in need of radical transformation. One popular strategy for change is the move towards open access, the free, unrestricted online access to academic literature. English called this strategy the most promising to date. Open access journals can still be peer-reviewed and of equivalent quality to traditional journals. While the logistics and business models of open access journals still have to be worked out, English said that open access has the benefits of increasing readership, research impact, scientific progress, and the growth of knowledge. The movement advocating open access has successfully changed the debate about scholarly communication in the past several years, English said.

Faculty should take action and exert their influence to further the open access movement, English concluded. Using their positions as members of editorial boards and as consumers of scholarly literature, they should "declare independence" from for-profit publishers. English also encouraged faculty to take part in national policy advocacy which encourages open access publishing. While he acknowledges that it will be a long struggle, English said he ultimately believes that a system of scholarly communication which serves the interests of scholars is attainable.

-- by Caroline Russell O'Shea '07

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