Universities pay thrice for open access: Durham v-c

Christopher Higgins details academy’s cost burden to Booksellers Association conference

Words’ worth: Durham’s Higgins calls for better value for money from journals

A vice-chancellor has argued that “crass implementation” of “the wonderful principle of open access” has led to universities “subsidising publishers’ businesses and not getting value for money from journals”.

Few dispute “the principle that information gained by public funding should be accessible to the public”, Christopher Higgins, head of Durham University, told the annual conference of the Academic, Professional and Specialist Group of the Booksellers Association last week in Brighton. Yet under current systems, he said, universities pay three times over.

They must take money from research budgets to make material freely accessible; they provide much essential refereeing and editorial work for virtually nothing; and then they must pay for journals at prices that have risen faster than tuition fees or research grants, he said.

University bookshops are also under threat, Professor Higgins noted. Waterstones’ academic bookshop in Durham, on property leased from the university, might have been unsustainable had the two organisations not worked together to use the venue for exhibitions, launches and merchandising as well as direct sales.

A key challenge, conference programme director Linda Bennett told Times Higher Education, was to “find ways of incorporating bookshops into the digital supply chain, which they’ve been slow to do”.

The conference also gave panels of six students and three academics the opportunity to tell booksellers and publishers what they needed.

Richard Follett, reader in American history at the University of Sussex, said that campus bookshops had “traditionally been leery of overstocking textbooks”, resulting in an “under-order for requirements” that made lecturers wary of directing their students there.

There were few signs of an enthusiastic embrace of e-books at the conference. Only one student preferred them for research projects, while another used a Kindle for holiday reading and a third when she wanted instant access to a novel.

Dr Follett said he had tried to make a course paperless by putting all the sources in a virtual learning environment, but found that many students still brought annotated printouts of the material to class.

Members of the student panel were also asked whether they would like software that, similar to music portal Spotify, could bring academic material to every iPad and laptop. One said she would be interested only if it offered primary sources and books held by other universities. Another said he was just as happy to go to the library if it meant he did not have to put up with endless adverts on his computer.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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