No secret science

Academic spring: Researchers boycotting journals find mainstream support

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A three-month-old scientific boycott against academic journal publishers won mainstream attention on April 9, when Guardian columnist Alok Jha dubbed the boycott an “Academic spring” and “a scientific revolution.”

So far, pretty much everybody on the Internet (with the possible exception of academic publishers) supports the academic spring. Commenters on Jha’s Guardian article shared personal anecdotes describing how their own academic studies have been hampered by Elsevier’s practices:

Having just finished my engineering degree dissertation I was continuously hampered in accessing relevant material that was hidden behind pay walls despite the research being funded by tax payers. I understand that publishers do a valuable job and need remuneration but often the cost to view a single online journal article can be extraordinary, typically 20 or 30 pounds [$30 to $45] but sometimes over 100 pounds [$150] to view a couple of pages of text. Elsevier simply cannot justify these astonishing costs.

The Twitterverse largely agreed. Alex Guttenplan @guttenplan tweeted the Guardian story and noted, “As someone annoyed by journal paywalls, this is definitely good news”.

Gary Schrader @Garyschrader dubbed it “Literally, brilliant!”

Natalie Ben @natalieben says Elsevier has “no justification for 35pc profits”
 
Jone Johnson Lewis@jonelewis considers the boycott a step “Towards more open science”

And Ed S @starstew agreed: “Scientific papers shouldn't be behind a pay wall.”

Academic journals are entirely different from the mainstream publications like The New Yorker or Cosmo. Journal subscriptions can cost thousands of dollars per year, and they’re marketed primarily to university libraries. These journals are where peer-reviewed scientific discoveries first find publication, and if scientific or academic professionals want to know the latest theories and discoveries in their respective fields, they must turn to these expensive journals to find it.

This status quo doesn’t sit well with Tim Gowers, a British mathematician at Cambridge University. Last January, he wrote a blog post explaining why he would no longer submit articles to Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals. He urged other academics to make similar refusals, and urged libraries to stop subscribing to Elsevier’s publications, in hope of breaking Elsevier’s effective monopoly on new scientific information.

Gowers discussed various ways Elsevier takes arguably unfair advantage of its monopoly:

  • It charges very high prices.
  • Elsevier often sells journals to libraries in large bundles, forcing them to take journals they do not want in order to get the ones that they do. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.)
  • If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.

To Gowers’ surprise, 9,000 other academics joined his boycott against Elsevier. One reader started a separate website, The Cost of Knowledge, where academics can join the boycott.

In his Guardian column, Jha quoted Gowers as saying “I wasn't expecting [the boycott] to make such a splash. At first I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up.”

In the United Kingdom, as in the US, universities receive lots of government funding, as do scientists and academics. Therefore, many of them argue, it’s doubly unfair for publishers to have taxpayers effectively underwrite the cost of their content while simultaneously paying the exorbitant prices that publishers like Elsevier charge.