Brilliant — academics taking on the publishers!

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by Neil Godfrey

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has a wonderfully encouraging article about academics taking on the tyranny of the academic publishing industry.  The bottom line of the issue is the argument that publicly funded research should by rights be made publicly available.

It’s by Josh Fischman, A few excerpts:

A protest against Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific journal publisher, is rapidly gaining momentum since it began as an irate blog post at the end of January. By Tuesday evening, about 2,400 scholars had put their names to an online pledge not to publish or do any editorial work for the company’s journals, including refereeing papers.

. . . . .

Protesters . . . say Elsevier is emblematic of an abusive publishing industry. “The government pays me and other scientists to produce work, and we give it away to private entities,” says Brett S. Abrahams, an assistant professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Then they charge us to read it.” Mr. Abrahams signed the pledge on Tuesday after reading about it on Facebook.

Those views highlight a split that could spell serious trouble for journal publishers, and for researchers. Price complaints are not new, but some observers say this is the first time that the suppliers of journal content—the scientists—are upset enough to cut the supply line. But, if publishers are correct, those scientists could cut themselves off from valuable research tools.

According to the boycotters, Elsevier, which publishes over 2,000 journals including the prestigious Cell and The Lancet, is abusing academic researchers in three areas. First there are the prices. Then the company bundles subscriptions to lesser journals together with valuable ones, forcing libraries to spend money to buy things they don’t want in order to get a few things they do want. And, most recently, Elsevier has supported a proposed federal law, the Research Works Act (HR 3699), that could prevent agencies like the National Institutes of Health from making all articles written by grant recipients freely available.

. . .  .

[T]he protest has also reached junior scholars like Mr. Abrahams of Albert Einstein, who has yet to gain tenure.

“I have three papers I’m hoping to submit in the next 12 weeks. One was destined for Cell, and another for Neuron,” also published by Elsevier, he said. “It would have been a real feather in my cap to publish there. But I won’t, based on this week’s discussions.” His work, focused on identifying genes related to autism, will go other places. “There are other good journals. And, long term, I’d like my library to be able to use its limited resources to better ends” than high journal prices, he said.

That could signal real problems for Elsevier, says Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications at Duke University Libraries. “Librarians have long complained about prices and bundling journals together, and nothing has changed,” he says. “Now it’s not just the customers who are complaining. It’s the suppliers.”

Academic librarians may buy journals, but it’s the scientists who produce and submit articles that make them worth buying, he says. “If they are upset, there is a chance they may change the system.”

. . . .

Nor does the Elsevier infrastructure impress younger scholars like Mr. Abrahams. “It could disappear tomorrow, and I’d never notice that it’s gone,” he said.

My job is at the centre of what this is all about — making publicly funded research openly available to the public. Coincidentally this is in large measure what this blog is about, too, in a much more informal and limited way. There is also the related question of long-term preservation. Libraries have traditionally been the repositories for this purpose but online journal publishers have robbed libraries of that ability and have forced the academic world to trust private companies whose bottom line is the profit margin with the preservation of our research heritage.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Brilliant — academics taking on the publishers!”

  1. Wow, before the last couple weeks I hadn’t heard anyone lament the topic of journal publishers. I’ve always only been on the student side of the equation however. There is an article on the Atlantic website bemoaning the very issues brought up in the article you commented on. I emailed the woman who wrote it and asked if there was much progress in regards to the issue, and she said there was none. But clearly she had not heard of the boycott.


    Is there anything to stop university professors from forming their own electronic publication services and enable schools to access that for free or at least at a price that would be aimed at site maintenance/organization? Would there need to be people paid to vet and choose what submissions would be published? Otherwise would that take away the prestige one obtains from “being published”? I could see that greatly effecting how professors are chosen to be tenured.

    Thanks for finding and posting this.

  2. Yes, there are now an increasing number of open source academic journals emerging. For a registry see http://www.doaj.org/

    Peer review is maintained. That’s not threatened. The Open Access movement itself has been around for quite some years — the first major milestone was the Budapest OA statement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access

    There are different business models emerging. In some the universities/authors pay to have their work published (without compromising peer review). There is a strong push to advance the philosophy that publicly funded research should be publicly available, but the Wall faced by this at the moment is the entrenched interest of publishers who have been protected by copyright rules that only made sense in a hard copy environment and break down in the digital and online age. That’s where Elsevier and others are coming from. They are fighting tooth and claw to protect those interests — to take control of publicly funded research and sell it back to the researchers!

    I’ve been working in open access repositories for a few years now and participating in the use and dissemination of open source software and open archive protocols and standards for sharing research and cultural resources online. The technologies and standards are in place and fast developing towards the next generation of the web (semantic web / web 3.0) which will ideally (eventually!) be (almost) exactly the what the internet was originally envisaged it should be. University repositories built to make this research openly available have had a checkered history in the U.S. but are doing better in many other parts of the world now. I am astounded at the change in attitude towards all of this OA movement among the academics in Australia and Europe in recent years. Many were suspicious and fiercely opposed when I first entered this field but that resistance is fast breaking down now. The publishers are turning to lobbying for legislation to protect their business models so it’s encouraging to see academics now fighting back.


    btw, that article found me 🙂 (It’s my job to keep up with this sort of stuff.)

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