Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ProQuest: Not "empowering researchers," not for one minute*

Why, it seems like just yesterday that I was praising the Renaissance Society of America for providing access to the most important database for scholars of Early Modern England.

And in fact, it was almost yesterday--just under two years ago.

Today I learned that, despite the RSA's pioneering leadership and concern for the needs of scholars at under-resourced institutions (or those working without any institutional affiliation at all), ProQuest has decided to terminate the relationship with the RSA because it's concerned that it might--potentially, down the line--lose revenue as a result.

Here's the full text of the letter from the RSA's Executive Committee to its membership:

Dear RSA members,

The RSA Executive Committee regrets to announce that ProQuest has canceled our subscription to the Early English Books Online database (EEBO). The basis for the cancellation is that our members make such heavy use of the subscription, this is reducing ProQuest's potential revenue from library-based subscriptions. We are the only scholarly society that has a subscription to EEBO, and ProQuest is not willing to add more society-based subscriptions or to continue the RSA subscription. We hoped that our special arrangement, which lasted two years, would open the door to making more such arrangements possible, to serve the needs of students and scholars. But ProQuest has decided for the moment not to include any learned societies as subscribers. Our subscription will end a few days from now, on October 31. We realize this is very late notice, but the RSA staff have been engaged in discussions with ProQuest for some weeks, in the hope of negotiating a renewal. If they change their mind, we will be the first to re-subscribe.

Sincerely yours,

The RSA Executive Committee
Carla Zecher, Joseph Connors, James Grubb, Edward Muir, Pamela Smith

As the outrage on Twitter makes clear, this is an absurd concern. Most of us would love to have institutional subscriptions to EEBO, so that our students (undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D.) could do their own research. The RSA's group subscription is no threat to that possibility; what is a threat is ProQuest's prohibitive subscription fees. Nowhere I've worked, apart from my doctoral institution, has had a subscription--and we've tried to get an institutional subscription in the past; several departments and the library were in full support, but it just wasn't financially feasible.

Until the RSA made EEBO access a perk of membership, I just used the login of a friend at a richer institution. And that's what I'll be doing, again, as will thousands of others. ProQuest will lose its revenue from the RSA and gain no additional institutional subscriptions.

If you want to tell ProQuest how you feel about this craven, mercenary move--well, I can't stop you. Twitter handle: @ProQuest

*Thus saith ProQuest's Twitter bio


Historiann said...

Well, this seems to make as much sense as a publisher refusing to provide review copies for possible course adoption: IOW, the RSA subscription benefit probably functioned as an ongoing advertisement for EEBO and may have driven some institutional subscriptions because of faculty agitation.

So, so sorry to hear about this. (Had I known that RSA membership included an EEBO subscription, I might have joined, because like you Flavia, the only contact with EEBO I get is at very prestigious institutions like my grad institution or the Huntington!)

I'm sorry for all of you Ren peeps at directional/non-flagship unis like yours and mine. It's not like most of us have that much time or money for our research anyway, IF ANY, so a snub like this will hurt.

Rachel said...

Increasingly, tenure at teaching-focused small liberal arts colleges like mine requires more research -- but my institution cannot and will never be able to afford EEBO's steep prices. For thousands of academics like me, ProQuest could be pricing us out of tenure. (Well, if we didn't find someone else to share logins.)

Susan said...

This is, as the twitterstorm suggests, a move with no good consequences, and certainly none for proquest. It does confirm my feeling that the most important work of Digital Humanities is probably the digitization of sources for purposes of accessibility. Its not as flashy as visualization, but it has a far greater impact. (Equally, everyone I know who has edited a text has said that they understand that as their most lasting intellectual contribution.)

I am lucky to have access to EEBO at work, but my previous job did not have it, and I logged in to your grad institution's library under my husband's name. So it's time to pay it forward.

Contingent Cassandra said...

How frustrating, and downright stupid. It seems to me that the academic publishing conglomerates are in danger of pricing themselves and their products out of existence, while ignoring very real, potentially profitable markets made up of individuals and smaller organizations who are willing and able to pay modest yearly fees. Anybody who thinks that students are going to continue paying for multi-hundred-dollar textbooks (or "learning platforms"), or cash-strapped colleges and universities are going to increase rather than decrease their database subscription lists, is completely out of touch with the current reality of higher education finances.

Flavia said...

More soon, but for now, for those not following along on Twitter, Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) has been assembling all the links and workarounds here:

Sooner or later, hopefully, there will be an open-access FrEEBO.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

It's back! Apparently the reaction caught them by surprise.

Flavia said...


Yes indeed! It does look like perhaps the Twitter response helped

(For the rest of you, see here and here.)

Still, open-access should be the long-term goal.