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Libraries and the Harvard Business Review 500
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Posted On November 21, 2013
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The American Library Association’s Business Reference and Services Section (BRASS) of the Reference and User Service’s Association (RUSA) issued a statement on Nov. 8, 2013, criticizing Harvard Business Publishing’s policy of making “read only” 500 of the Harvard Business Review’s articles that are online through EBSCOhost as of Aug. 1, 2013. EBSCO has exclusive rights to the electronic version of Harvard Business Review. The 500 articles represent the most popular titles and span more than a decade of publication dates. The full list of the HBR 500 is on the BRASS website, and many libraries have put it on their websites as well. Libraries wanting full access to these articles can do so for an additional fee, which can range from $10,000 to $200,000 a year.

The BRASS/RUSA statement reads, “Librarians decry the erosion of full access to scholarly material.” The email accompanying the statement also urges both Harvard Business Publishing and other publishers “to work with libraries to find access and pricing models that honor our shared educational and scholarly missions, and to broaden the discussion by informing their administrators, constituents, and legislators about the situation and its relevance to scholarly communications and the costs of higher education.”

Andy Spackman, business and economics librarian at Brigham Young University and current BRASS chair, believes the HBR policy violates not only academic norms but also industry norms for database aggregators such as EBSCO.

Exclusive License

The roots of this controversy can be traced back to the original license, signed in 2000, that granted EBSCO exclusive rights to Harvard Business Review. The exclusive agreement took effect during the Special Libraries Association’s (SLA) Global 2000 conference in Brighton, U.K., Oct. 16–19, 2000, when the not-to-be-envied staff at the ProQuest stand were deluged with irate librarians demanding to know why Harvard Business Review was suddenly no longer available on that system.

Things settled down to a low simmer after that. Although the license with EBSCO specified that “course materials” were excluded, the clause was generally ignored. In 2009, however, Harvard decided to charge several university libraries extra fees for articles from the magazine that were used to share course materials. Harvard’s objection stemmed from the use of deep linking to articles through persistent links added to learning management systems. Apparently since only a few libraries were affected, these additional fees did not attract the formal attention of BRASS or RUSA.

Harvard’s decision to make its 500 articles “read only” did more than attract attention—it made business librarians furious. Librarians received the news from Harvard just prior to the ALA annual conference, giving them the perfect opportunity to discuss the issue in person. At the conference, the BRASS concerns were escalated to the RUSA level. It still took almost 4 months to produce the statement. Negotiations between the ALA unit and Harvard Business Press were ongoing during that time, but Harvard refused to back down.

To put the HBR 500 in perspective, as of November 2013, there were 13,310 Harvard Business Review articles in EBSCOhost. The read-only titles, therefore, comprise 3.76% of the total HBR articles. If you consider the 500 titles as a percentage of all articles in Business Source Complete, it becomes a minuscule 0.0051%. Harvard’s contention, of course, is that its HBR 500 are vastly more prestigious.

Beyond Libraries

Not only did the HBR 500 decision anger librarians, it led to a public argument between Joshua Gans, professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of Information Wants to Be Shared (a book published in 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press), and Das Narayandas, senior associate dean of executive education and publishing and the James J. Hill professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.


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Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search Summit.

Email Marydee Ojala
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