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Librarian discusses future of academic publishing

Marissa Pie | Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bryn Geffert, Amherst College librarian, addressed the currently flawed state of the libraries on campuses across the country in his lecture, “Academic Libraries and Academic Publishing: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.”

The Saint Mary’s College Cushwa-Leighton Library hosted Geffert on Tuesday night in an effort to provide students with optimal researching capacities.
Geffert, who previously served as the library director at the United States Military Academy, said he wanted to foster a world where all scholars would be able to access information with only an Internet connection regardless of where they live.

He said typically, a researcher is paid for his or her research and when he sends it off to an institution to get published he relinquishes his rights to the piece. In most cases, his institution buys the work back from the publisher, but Geffert said  the author does not see a dime of profit unless he sells an unrealistic amount of copies.

“I cannot imagine a more dysfunctional, more in jeopardy state that academic publishing could be in,” he said.

“This is an absolutely perverse model. We could not devise something more preposterous.

“And what is the effect? Escalading serials expenditures. Publishers are able to charge whatever prices they want because they have control of the market. The trajectory is absolutely unsustainable, [and] institutions cannot keep up”

Geffert said three major scientific publishers have almost become monopolized: Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. Because these three companies control so much of the market, they are able to charge authors obscene amounts of money to publish their works, he said.

“Now the result is that libraries must pay more and more each year for publishing, leaving less money for books and material for students,” he said. “Cambridge University Press has eliminated entire series just because there aren’t enough libraries that can afford to buy from them.”

In 1986, libraries were spending 44 percent of their budgets on books, according to Geffert. Last year, that number dwindled to 22 percent because they were forced to spend so much on journal publishing costs. At his library at Amherst, 56 disciplines have lost presses since 1993, Geffert said.

“I’m not arguing that there’s a shortage of outlets for publishing,” he said. “Anyone with a manuscript can get it looked at. But my argument is that there is a need for good, quality, not-for-profit, university presses.”

Geffert said hundreds of third-world countries are suffering from empty bookshelves. Geffert said he believes the current library and publishing system is failing that universal mission associated with universities implied by the word’s Latin root.”Its hard for universities to provide light to their own students, let alone shedding light on the world,” he said. “So what can we do about it? We can accept the status quo and do nothing. Or, we can accept the status quo and work around the edges.

“We can contest the status quo, kicking and screaming and see what happens. Or we can create a new status quo.”

The Public Library of Science (PLOS) has done exactly that, Geffert said. He described PLOS as a series of top quality scientific journals, available online for free. An author must pay a fee to see their work published in this library, but most of the contributors are researchers who are funded by government grants, he said. He said the main issue is translating this setup to liberal arts colleges like Amherst or Saint Mary’s.

Geffert said he has worked to help Amherst establish a new kind of press that will hopefully make literature available to the largest possible audience.

“We have announced everything [faculty members] publish at the College’s press will be available free of charge on the Internet,” he said. “Everyone with tInternet can access what is published at Amherst. The reader can download and share it. We have been knocked off our seats with how excited the media is.”

Through college endowment and volunteers, the College would be able to do so without ever realizing a dime for revenue.

“The ultimate dream behind this endeavor:[is] at some poine, there is a tipping point at which the savings we are realizing from not borrowing from other institutions will cover the costs,” he said.

Though he acknowledged his goals were idealistic, Geffert said he truly believes that if implemented, this system of shared information will change academia.
“I imagine a day where a student in India has the same access to information as a student of a wealthy university as a student in Appalachia. That’s the ultimate dream I think we should be striving towards,” he said.

Contact Marissa Pie at [email protected]