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Significant dollars can be redirected back to universities from commercial publishers by the advocacy of publishing at reasonable prices. MIT is well positioned to lead in this transformation, thereby translating what is now a significant cost into an investment in the Institute.
In 2010, MIT Libraries reduced its budget for collections by $700,000. In an era of escalating journal and book prices from commercial publishers, these kinds of budget reductions have seriously undermined libraries’ ability to fulfill their mission. MIT’s experience in this area is by no means unique. Similarly, university presses and society publishers at the other end of the publishing stream have found themselves squeezed by decreasing sales and are also falling short of their mandate: to disseminate innovative scholarship as widely as possible. Taken together, this represents a critical problem for the future of the university: how to ensure production of and access to the best research from the academic community. Further complicating matters, the issue has become polarized as the bright lights shone on the open access vs. commercial publishers battle have obscured the middle ground where university presses do their work.
MIT, in consort with other large research universities, is uniquely positioned to fix this problem. And despite its seeming intractability, fixable it indeed is for it hinges on a single factor that is partly under the university’s control: the very large checks libraries must write to pay for scholarly content from commercial publishers. Many things could be done about this including consciousness raising among faculty and encouraging all members of the MIT community to consider the consequences of the decisions they make about where they submit their research, which editorial boards they serve on and which journals they offer peer review services. But the critical mass required to enact significant change within the current scholarly communications system must come from the upper levels of the university. Were the presidents and provosts of MIT and its brethren to join together to stand against the pricing policies of these publishers the benefits would cascade throughout the university. MIT Libraries could afford to expand their collections significantly, researchers and students would have access to a greater range of materials, MIT Press could invest in publishing more books and journals as well as developing new publishing methods to better serve its diverse communities. The opportunity is there for MIT to remake the model for scholarly communications and turn what is currently a significant cost into a profound investment back into MIT itself.