Princeton: our scholars must own their copyrights

The 1709 Blog writes about Princeton University’s new Open Access policy:

[L]ibrarians and academics have long known that journal publishers monopolise the market; even as much as ten years ago the larger publishers were busy buying out the smaller ones who weren’t strong enough to compete with them. But outside of academia people are largely unaware of the struggles every electronic resources librarian faces each year as budgets shrink and journal bundle prices steadily increase. Tough decisions often have to be made, and naturally the impact is felt by researchers, academics and students.

Which is why today’s announcement that Princeton University is enforcing an Open Access policy forbidding academics from transferring the copyright in their articles to journal publishers is so significant. Academics are required to licence their work instead, so that they retain the copyright and are therefore able to reproduce it elsewhere without having to seek the permission of the publisher. This could spark a welcome trend which would allow academics and universities to maximise their outputs and revolutionise knowledge sharing. [emphasis added]

In many disciplines–particularly the sciences–scholars already pay journals to publish them.  In other words, the scholars’ universities foot some or all of the bill for peer review and editing (in addition, of course, to “subsidizing” scholars by way of salaries).  Especially in these circumstances, it seems that the scholar/university have a lot of leverage to do what Princeton is doing here since academic publishers’ leverage to push back is directly tied to their value-add.  Since, under these particular circumstances, the publishers are adding almost no value, their leverage is near zero.

A more interesting question arises where the academic publishers add more value–i.e., where the publisher directly incurs the editing and peer reviewing costs.  There, the scholar/university may well get more push back.

If other colleges and universities follow Princeton’s lead, traditional academic publishers could find themselves effectively cut out of the market very quickly.

Colleges have debt too

The New York Times has published an opinion piece by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, that puts a slightly different spin on the perennial college-costs-are-out-of-control argument.  He suggests that the institutions of higher education are themselves as indebted (and troubled) as their students:

There is a similarity between the debt crisis on Wall Street and what threatens higher education. Just as investors borrowed more and increased their leverage in volatile markets, many colleges and universities are borrowing more and betting on an expanding market in higher education at the precise moment their product is becoming affordable for fewer people.

It’s an interesting observation with potentially far-reaching implications.  There is always going to be demand for higher education, but it’s hard to see how a university like N.Y.U. can sustain debt levels higher than its endowment (“a staggering $2.22 billion debt with a relatively modest $2.2 billion endowment,” according to the article) in a world where “four years at a top-tier school will cost $330,000 in 2020, $525,000 in 2028 and $785,000 in 2035” if present trends continue.