Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Academics Starting to Get Into the 21st Century and Rebel Against Journal Publishing for Huge Profits

Also, For-Profit Publishers Want to Charge Taxpayers for Taxpayer Supported Research

Publishing has always been key to academic success, so why would a respected research academic announce that he is boycotting the largest and most important publisher of academic journals and why are his colleagues following him?

On January 21st Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University, wrote a blog post outlining the reasons for his longstanding boycott of research journals published by Elsevier. This firm, which is based in the Netherlands, owns more than 2,000 journals, including such top-ranking titles as Cell and the Lancet.

What’s the complaint?  Well it seems that Elsevier is using its market power to put gaining massive profits over access to research.

Dr Gowers’s immediate gripes are threefold. First, that Elsevier charges too much for its products. Second, that its practice of “bundling” journals forces libraries which wish to subscribe to a particular publication to buy it as part of a set that includes several others they may not want. And third, that it supports legislation such as the Research Works Act, a bill now before America’s Congress that would forbid the government requiring that free access be given to taxpayer-funded research.

Now the part of this article that caught the attention of The Dismal Political Economist is that very last part of that paragraph.  Think about it, there is a bill before the Congress that would forbid the government from requiring that free access be given to taxpayer funded research.  Wow, taxpayer money is used by companies or individuals or institutions to conduct research, and then those same organizations want to charge the taxpayers for access to the research that the taxpayers paid for in the first place.

It is not clear who supports such a bill, or even how much support the bill has.  But the fact that such a proposal even exists is testament to the greed and avarice of some organizations, some of whom may even be non-profit.  To want to charge for access to research that has been publicly funded is so absurd that one assumes only highly partisan politicians could adopt it. 

As for the other issue, the monopoly like power that a private academic publisher that is making huge profits

Elsevier insists it is being misrepresented. The firm is certainly in rude financial health. In 2010 it made a £724m ($1.16 billion) profit on revenues of £2 billion, a margin of 36%.

It looks like outrage among academics and information technology may see an end to their rapacious greed.

To many, it is surprising things have taken so long to boil over. Academics were the internet’s earliest adopters, with all the possibilities for cutting publishers out of the loop which that offers. And there have indeed been attempts to create alternatives to commercial publishing. Cornell University’s arXiv website (pronounced “archive”, the X standing in for the Greek letter “chi”) was set up in 1991. Researchers can upload maths and physics papers that have not (yet) been published in journals. Thousands are added every day. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) was founded in 2000. It publishes seven free journals which cover biology and medicine.

And more and more academics are joining the fight.

More than 2,700 researchers from around the world have so far signed an online pledge set up by Tyler Neylon, a fellow-mathematician who was inspired by Dr Gowers’s post, promising not to submit their work to Elsevier’s journals, or to referee or edit papers appearing in them. That number seems, to borrow a mathematical term, to be growing exponentially. If it really takes off, established academic publishers might find they have a revolution on their hands.

So if the cause is won, intellectual expression will be the winner, lower costs for universities will be the winner, increased dissemination of research will be the winner and maybe the only loser will be a publisher who went too far.  All in all, not a bad outcome.

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