The confrontation started with an Oct. 6, 2013, post on Gans’ blog, Digitopoly, a month before the BRASS/RUSA statement appeared, when he accused Harvard Business School Publishing of crossing a line and becoming “evil” in its policies. He suggested that scholars should “petition the Financial Times to remove HBR from its list” of journals used to rank MBA programs. He followed up with an opinion piece in the Financial Times (FT) 10 days later (“Harvard Business Review Should Pay a Price for Its Fees”). Narayandas responded the next day, also in the FT (“Harvard Business Review Answers Its Critics”), saying, “These articles remain available for researchers and research use—we simply limited the means by which they can be assigned and distributed as course materials.” Narayandas also seemed to imply that higher education institutions were using dubious methods to cheat Harvard and claimed that the new fees “simply shift the payment for these articles from the school to the library.”
As almost every business librarian knows, that latter statement simply does not hold water, nor do the librarians appreciate the thought that normal usage of EBSCOhost databases could be construed as intentionally diverting payment from a publisher. Adding costs to already strained library budgets results in libraries not paying the fees and leaving the HBR 500 as read only for their students and faculty.
EBSCO Caught in the Middle
What is EBSCO’s position on the BRASS/RUSA statement? Essentially, the company is caught in the middle of the dispute. An EBSCO spokesperson said she couldn’t comment on the issue because it is “really more about Harvard Business Publishing policies” than EBSCO. In other words, EBSCO is bound by its contract and apparently not putting the pressure on Harvard that its customers would like to see, probably because it doesn’t want to anger an important supplier.
In September 2013, EBSCO signed another exclusive agreement with Harvard, this time regarding its books. The press release states, “An agreement between EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO) and Harvard Business Review Press will allow EBSCO to create summaries of Harvard Business Review Press’ books by the world’s leading business thinkers. … Summaries of all the very latest Harvard Business Review Press books will be available exclusively from EBSCO Business Book Summaries™ starting in January 2014, along with summaries of Harvard Business Review Press’ all-time best-sellers.”
Effect of Statement
If history gives any guidance on the librarians’ protest against the HBR 500 restrictions, Harvard is all too likely to prevail. Although the attention the BRASS/RUSA statement garnered is encouraging, it’s unclear why it’s so hidden at the organization’s website. Action beyond the formal protest statement will be necessary if business librarians are to change the minds of executives at Harvard Business Publishing. The BRASS/RUSA task force knows that and promises it “will by no means be our last word on the matter.”
The Harvard decision sets an extremely bad precedent for libraries. What happens if other publishers follow suit? That would destroy the integrity and diminish the value of aggregators such as EBSCO. To change minds at Harvard, strong measures are required. Imagine the result if no librarians opted to pay the added fees, all libraries canceled their subscriptions to Harvard Business Review, and every professor eliminated HBR articles from course reading lists. Unrealistic? Certainly, but it could take that level of financial hit and reputation loss to change current policies.