#ProQuestGate (updated)

Today the Renaissance Society of America announced that ProQuest has canceled the EEBO subscription for RSA members, effective October 31. Here is the full text of the email:

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

I am furious and terrified about what this means for my ability to research. On a larger scale, I am furious and terrified about what this means for the future of scholarly research when necessary databases are owned by profit-driven corporations.

EEBO is so exorbitantly priced that only the wealthiest institutions can afford it. My institution, a small liberal arts college that focuses on teaching, is putting increasing pressure on those of us without tenure to produce more research in order to get tenure. At the same time, it lacks the resources to provide an institutional subscription to EEBO, a necessary database for my work. With this move, ProQuest could be pricing me out of tenure.

ProQuest seems to think that eliminating the RSA subscription will force libraries to subscribe. I’m not sure where they think increasingly cash-strapped libraries can find money for such an expensive subscription. Does ProQuest think that we enjoy not having institutional subscriptions? That we don’t want our students to have access? Of course we do. But if we could afford EEBO, we would already have EEBO.

This is not only a wrongheaded move, but also a shortsighted and ridiculous one. Instead of enabling RSA members to subscribe as a way to persuade libraries that (should there one day be enough money) an institutional subscription is useful, ProQuest is cutting down on its users for no gain.

Decisions like this make it clear why scholarship and scholarly databases need to be open access, not controlled by profit-driven corporations.

Jessica Otis (@jotis13 on Twitter) suggested an open-access database using scans from libraries: FrEEBO (Free Early English Books Online). Let’s make it happen.

Update, 10/29/2015: ProQuest has reversed its position. The RSA has sent the following email to its members:

Dear RSA members,

We are delighted to convey the following statement from ProQuest:

We’re sorry for the confusion RSA members have experienced about their ability to access Early English Books Online (EEBO) through RSA. Rest assured that access to EEBO via RSA remains in place. We value the important role scholarly societies play in furthering scholarship and will continue to work with RSA — and others — to ensure access to ProQuest content for members and institutions.

The RSA subscription to EEBO will not be canceled on October 31, and we look forward to a continued partnership with ProQuest.

Sincerely yours,

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

While this is good news for RSA members, the quick about-face also — as I noted on Twitter — emphasizes the need for a better open-source alternative to EEBO. ProQuest were recently acquired by Goldman Sachs; we cannot rely on the caprices of profit-driven concerns to enable scholarly access to necessary resources. If our research needs collide with ProQuest’s profit, profit will always win and research will always lose. I suspect that ProQuest would not have come around nearly as soon if the early modern Twittersphere hadn’t made it so clear that EEBO is, in fact, replaceable.

Speaking of which: I highly recommend Heather Froehlich’s excellent blog post, which aggregates a number of EEBO alternatives and complements. Thanks to all those who are producing these great open-access resources!

4 thoughts on “#ProQuestGate (updated)

  1. As a graduate student at a small state college with limited resources, my ability to access this valuable information is my biggest challenge. Understanding the effort presumably undertaken by ProQuest to digitize manuscripts warrants a priority for profit, it is difficult to understand why they would not extend eligibility of membership to all scholars interested. I myself focus on poor relief in early modern England, and having access to the wealth of sources ProQuest holds would benefit me greatly. More important, though, is the benefit to society at large to have the opportunity to sift through the raw materials of our past. A greater connection to history is so important to future generations that I question the notion of economic gatekeeping in favor of large universities.


    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I’m not sure that I agree that effort deserves profit. After all, university presses publish thousands of academic books while understanding that the advancement of knowledge does not necessarily make for bestsellers. If we hinge scholarship on profitability, everyone loses, as I’m sure you agree.


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