A memo from Harvard Library to the university's 2,100 teaching and research staff called for action after warning it could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which cost the library around $3.5m a year.

The extraordinary move thrusts one of the world's wealthiest and most prestigious institutions into the centre of an increasingly fraught debate over access to the results of academic research, much of which is funded by the taxpayer.

The outcome of Harvard's decision to take on the publishers will be watched closely by major universities around the world and is likely to prompt others to follow suit with similar recommendations.

The memo from Harvard's faculty advisory council said major publishers had created an “untenable situation” at the university by making scholarly communication “fiscally unsustainable” and “academically restrictive”, while drawing profits of 35 per cent or more.

Prices for online access to articles from two major publishers have increased by 145 per cent over the past six years, with some journals costing as much as $40,000, the memo states.

More than 10,000 academics have already joined a boycott of Elsevier, the huge Dutch publisher, in protest at its journal pricing and access policies.

Many university libraries pay more than half of their journal budgets to the publishers Elsevier, Springer and Wiley.

“I hope that other universities will take similar action. We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices,” Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library told the Guardian.

“The system is absurd, and it is inflicting terrible damage on libraries.

We simply cannot go on paying the increase in subscription prices. In the long run, the answer will be open-access journal publishing, but we need concerted effort to reach that goal,” he added.

Open access comes in various guises, but one model requires authors to pay to have their articles published and made freely available to anyone.

According to the Harvard memo, journal subscriptions are now so high that to continue them “would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.”

The memo asks faculty members to encourage their professional organisations to take control of scholarly publishing, and to consider submitting their work to open access journals and resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access.

David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK (RLUK), said: “Harvard has one of the richest libraries in the world.

If Harvard can't afford to purchase all the journals their researchers need, what hope do the rest of us have?” The memo from Harvard makes clear that it's bigger than that. It's at the heart of education and research. If you can't get access to the literature, it hurts research.” Research Libraries UK (RLUK) negotiated new contracts with Elsevier and Wiley last year after the group threatened to cancel large subscriptions to the publishers.

The new deal, organised on behalf of 30 member libraries, is expected to save UK institutions more than GBP20m. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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