An (Imaginary) Clash between the Humanities and Sciences

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sustainability in pricing of academic journals. In this genteel battle between academic journal publishers (who sell the journals) and academic libraries (who buy the subscriptions), I got a sense that the librarians expected help from their clientele, the professors and researchers for whom the libraries buy the journals, in negotiating with the journals, where the professors are the content providers as well as editors, and so presumably hold greater influence than the librarians. In this regard, I think the librarians have been disappointed.

Besides the obvious disconnect that arises when the final consumer for a product is not the same person as the one footing the bill — think of health insurance, public education as examples — I don’t know why this is the case. Lack of both first-hand knowledge and any data, however, aren’t stopping me from speculating. Here’s a reason why I think the professors aren’t supporting the librarians’ efforts to reign in journal subscription costs more: the professors are divided among themselves between those in the sciences for whom journal articles are both more important and more expensive and those in the humanities whose journals are cheap but who need primary sources (books, archives . . . etc), the acquisitions are being cut to fund the journal subscriptions.

I’ve invented an imaginary dialogue to illustrate my point:

Scene 1: Humble librarian approaches intellectually domineering professor in the sciences

Humble Librarian: Please sir, your journals are costing so much money that we’re having to cut back on acquiring books and other materials for our collections. Won’t you please do something to help? Anything really. Maybe publishing in open source journals? Maybe talking to your professional societies?

Domineering Science Professor: Bah humbug! What are you cutting? Books? We don’t need those anyway! Pay for the journals! That’s quite enough! Now, be out of my way, I have cancer to cure.

Scene 2: Chastised, humble librarian is confronted by intellectually domineering professor in the humanities

Domineering Literary Scholar: Bah humbug! Where are all the books? The papers, letters, pamphlets, marginalia, and ephemera that I need for my research to understand the human condition? You, you there! Librarian, explain yourself.

 Humble Librarian: Please sir, try to understand, we had to cut all that stuff back in order to afford the subscriptions to the academic journals.

Domineering Literary Scholar: What? Nonsense! Our journals are dirt cheap! Don’t you understand how important my research is? You, of all people, who probably came from the humanities yourself and are only a librarian because you couldn’t find a tenure-track job as a great humanist, like I am. Oh, the betrayal!

Curtains. Tomatoes from the audience.

To recap, the librarians aren’t getting the support they want because those that suffer the harm from inflation in the cost of journal subscription aren’t in position to do anything about them, while those are are, don’t think of the cuts in non-journal materials as a negative. Speculation is fun, folks!

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