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The Cost of Knowledge Versus Elsevier: 5,600 Signatures and Growing
Posted On February 13, 2012
Timothy Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician and winner of the coveted Fields medal in mathematics, began The Cost of Knowledge (COK) website petition to publicize his own personal boycott of Elsevier, thus encouraging others to do the same. According to the COK website, “the success … has far exceeded his initial expectations.” Gowers, who inspired the petition in a Jan. 21, 2012 blog post with the title “Elsevier: my part in its downfall,” says he believes Elsevier’s practices are doomed—“the internet will see to that.”

In his blog post, Gowers explains that, “A famous (and not unique) example where we did so was the resignation of the entire editorial board of Topology and the founding of The Journal of Topology. But..such examples are very much the exception rather than the rule, so the basic question remains: why do we allow ourselves to be messed about to this extraordinary extent, when one would have thought that nothing would be easier than to do without them?”

The inspiration for Gowers’ actions are credited to Peter Suber , Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, who pledged on Jan. 7 that “(he) realized that I have a third reason not to referee for certain publishers, and it would apply even if I were willing to referee for toll-access journals. I will not referee for a publisher belonging to the Association of American Publishers unless it has publicly disavowed the AAP’s position on the Research Works Act.”

The number of signatories to COK has grown slowly but steadily to more than 5,600 researchers who vow not to do editorial work, review papers, or submit their work to an Elsevier publication. The petition is to identify a single publication house as a target. And, while three objections have been identified in the complaint, it is generally believed that the key trigger was the Association of American Publishers’ support of both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Research Works Act (RWA) “that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.” The RWA, co-sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), would reverse the Public Access Policy introduced in 2005 by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH policy requires that taxpayer-funded research is made freely accessible online within 12 months of publication.*

“The world has changed in significant ways. Authors typeset their own papers, using electronic typesetting. Publishing and distribution costs are not as great as they once were,” states the newly released Statement of Purpose on the COK website. “And most importantly, dissemination of scientific ideas no longer takes place via the physical distribution of journal volumes. Rather, it takes place mainly electronically. While this means of dissemination is not free, it is much less expensive, and much of it happens quite independently of mathematical journals.”

In addition to the objection to the support of SOPA and RWA, the petition argues that Elsevier charges “exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.” Moreover, “In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large ‘bundles,’ which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.”

Elsevier, a Dutch publisher, was singled out by Gowers because it publishes many of the world’s best known mathematics journals, including Advances in Mathematics, Comptes Rendus, and Topology. Also, in a recently released open letter signed by 34 mathematicians who support COK, they argue that “many mathematicians have in recent years lost patience with being involved in a system in which commercial publishers make profits... for a service that has become largely unnecessary...Among all the commercial publishers, the behavior of Elsevier seemed to many to be the most egregious.”

Not surprisingly, many of the signers of the COK petition are mathematicians; however, other sciences, such as computer science and biology are well represented. However, of particular note are the comments that individuals who sign the petition can include.

“With the moves of these megapublishers, we are seeing the beginning of monopoly control of the scholarly record,” notes Hal Abelson at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab - Computer Science. “This does not serve the needs of scholarship or the needs of the public.”

Other comments highlight a similar thread of concern over the direction the publishing system is taking. José García-Cuerva a mathematician at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, states that, “I am very glad that an organized protest against Elsevier is up. We need an urgent rethinking of the way scientists share their knowledge. The old system is approaching corruption very rapidly.”

Elsevier, for its part, responded in an open letter it released that argues that “some of the facts about Elsevier are being misrepresented, the depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously. We’re listening to all the concerns expressed and redoubling our substantial efforts to make our contributions to that community better, more transparent, and more valuable to all our partners and friends in the research community.”

Defending the company’s support of RWA in a separate communication posted on LIBLICENSE, Alice Wise, director of universal access at Elsevier says, “The NIH policy has only been in effect a few years and so these early warning signs are important: they indicate usage and revenue loss could increase over time as the content duplicated in PMC increases...essentially using tax payer funds to duplicate publisher efforts, and depriving publishers of revenue for their investments. The current NIH public access policy therefore seems neither efficient nor sustainable.”

Cost of Knowledge has no “end date” to the petition and the document could remain viable for years. In no small measure, it will also test the commitment of those who have signed it to actually carry through with their boycott.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I signed the boycott myself. 

* Feb. 9, 2012 development: The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2012 (FRPAA) has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Senators Cornyn (R-TX), Wyden (D-OR), and Hutchison (R-TX) and in the House by Reps. Doyle (D-PA), Yoder (R-KS) and Clay (D-MO). The proposed bill would build on the success of the first U.S. mandate for public access to the published results of publicly funded research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and require federal agencies to provide the public with online access to articles reporting on the results of the United States’ $60 billion in publicly funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.


Feb. 27, 2012 update: Elsevier Withdraws Support for the Research Works Act.

Robin Peek was an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She also wrote a monthly column called Focus on Publishing for Information Today.

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