Will Academics' Boycott Of Elsevier Be The Tipping Point For Open Access — Or Another Embarrassing Flop?

from the is-it-different-this-time? dept

It’s now widely recognized that the extreme demands of SOPA/PIPA catalyzed a new activism within the Net world, epitomized by the blackout effected by sites like Wikipedia on January 18. But as Techdirt has reported, SOPA and PIPA are not the only attacks by the copyright industries on the digital commons: another is the Research Works Act (RWA), which attempts to remove the public’s right to read the articles written by tax-funded researchers in open access journals form.

But, like SOPA/PIPA, RWA may have been an intellectual land-grab too far. It has provoked a rebellion by academics that might provide the final push needed to move academic publishing from its current mode, dominated by hugely-profitable corporations that require payment for most of their output, to one based around open access journals, with smaller profits, but whose articles are freely available online to all.

Things started when Peter Suber, who is widely regarded as one of the unofficial leaders of the open access movement, pledged on January 7 not to work with any publisher that accepted the Association of American Publishers’ position supporting RWA. But it was a blog post two weeks later by the British mathematician and Fields Medallist (think Nobel Prize of mathematics) Tim Gowers that provided the spark for the explosion of anger that followed:

I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.

He singled out the giant publisher Elsevier (disclosure: I used to work for one of its sister companies) for three main reasons. First, for its scholarly journals’ high prices; secondly, for its use of “bundling” — forcing libraries to sign up for large collections of journals, whether they wanted them all or not; and finally, because of its support for SOPA, PIPA — and RWA.

Gower’s gesture was born of personal exasperation, but one that he knew many others shared. The question was how to mobilize people so that their collective action would have an effect. He wrote:

It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so, and that it would be a good way of making that stand public.

Within a couple of days, Tyler Neylon had set up just such a site, “The Cost of Knowledge: Researchers taking a stand against Elsevier“, which repeats the three main objections that Gowers raised, and invites people to refrain from working with Elsevier. At the time of writing, nearly 2,000 academics from a wide range of disciplines have pledged their support for the boycott.

This is certainly the most visible revolt in recent years against the exorbitant profits of companies like Elsevier, and their tight control of the academic publishing process, but it’s not the first or the biggest. Back in 2000, right at the dawn of open access, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was created with the same aim of making research more widely available. To achieve this, the three founders of PLoS circulated an open letter calling for “the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form”, which contained the following passage:

To encourage the publishers of our journals to support this endeavor, we pledge that, beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published

Nearly 34,000 scientists signed that letter, but only a handful of publishers committed themselves to making their articles available as the letter requested; worse, few signatories followed through with their promised boycotts of the publishers who refused. Will things be any different this time, in the post-SOPA world?

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Comments on “Will Academics' Boycott Of Elsevier Be The Tipping Point For Open Access — Or Another Embarrassing Flop?”

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xenomancer (profile) says:

Catchy Comment Title...

As a soon to be publishing engineer and scientist (soon is a relative term, it’ll be a year or two still), this has been a major concern for me for some time now. Working my way through undergraduate school, I would often still have to pay ~$35 for 24 hours of access to individual journal articles despite the university’s partnership with elsevier (etc.). Elsevier’s online system is not only dismally implemented, but completely redundant for an intelligent student or professional who can simply save a copy of the document during viewing. The license stipulates that the access is conditional on the license and online access existing rather than the document existing, which places the legal responsibility on the viewer to ensure the document is not saved for further use. This is a massive burden for those seeking to strictly comply with the license they sign for access while attempting to get ANY work done while not tethered to a computer with access. This meant that I would have to access the elsevier network from the university network either via physical proximity or VPN and maintain a constant connection to allow access to journal articles. Being on campus during all relevant network access is a major burden on many students and professors and VPN access invites situations where access is cut off because the data cap is reached when the OS decides to download an update. If I did the intelligent thing and saved a copy of the PDF I was viewing, I was violating the license agreement. This made me an understandably irate student when it came time to present electronic copies of my references to professors when presenting original research, as I would have to often commit a sin of omission when detailing my literature review methods.

Given all of that grief, I think it is safe to say that I will not, to the best of my abilities, be publishing in any journal partnered with elsevier or sciencedirect. They ensnare all the content they get their hands on and severely impede the progress of science and education.

Melissa Ruhl (profile) says:

Re: Catchy Comment Title...

The problem is that if you are planning on making a career in academia, you will be required to publish and many academics (read people who will hire you) look down on online publishing.

Have you read Danah Boyd’s 2008 article on open access publishing at the university? I’ve always thought this was an excellent read.

xenomancer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Catchy Comment Title...

First, I do realize (thus much of my professional frustration) that academia is heavily based on both the merit and prestige of published works. Even though I will spend the better part of my career in industry, my career path with land me right back in academia (the whole “giving back to the community” plus crazy old professor gimmick). As both of these parts of my career will be primarily research and development, I will likely be publishing regularly. Thankfully, industrial R&D is more merit (of reputation, I suppose) based than academia, so I will be somewhat shielded prior my return to an academic career.

Second, that is why I have (almost) created the “journal of open science.” I have the domains and hosting, but have yet to really put the time into establishing it as intended. I have other obligations for this Spring, but sometime soon (again, in a relative sense) I will explore gathering a team to assist me and figure things out. Once I do have the time, I will bring it online as another journal complementing both PLoS and arXiv, amongst several others out there. There is open source software specifically targeted at hosting an open journal (found here), but it is a bit clunky and immature. For now, I am looking into adapting something with a larger support base (such as WordPress or Joomla) to my needs.

Third, I do think that the current bias against online publishing is mostly a matter of PR and allowing the next generation the time to really cement it in as a competitor to “paper based” publishers.

*I have not yet read the article at the link you posted, but I will soon.

Melissa Ruhl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Catchy Comment Title...

Very exciting! I look forward to the site’s debut.

I can definitely see that there would be a difference between academic and private research and development. At least in my department, there was a heavy bias against any online publishing, but we definitely have an older department. Perhaps the graduate students just haven’t been exposed yet. I know that many of the top schools are encouraging their professors to publish openly. We’ll see!

William Gunn (user link) says:

Re: Re: That's a little bit outdated

It may have been true that academics preferred print journals in the past, but it’s less so now. Ask any librarian and they’ll tell you that electronic access is by far the primary mode of access to the literature today.

Academics have many options, too. The Public Library of Science (http://plos.org), mentioned above, has several journals that are well respected in their fields.

Even those academics who do feel compelled to publish in an Elsevier journal can support this boycott until the Research Works Act is pulled.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Knowledge should never be locked up.

If the internet has taught us anything it has taught us that only when knowledge can be freely shared does it’s value rise to the level it should.

Just think of all the millions of hours of time lost forever because scientists and researchers wind up recreating information because it was not easily found.

My own experience is different. I went back to college for an advanced degree. The college I was at start off with us paying for our text books and we would also get access to an e-book for one price. This for me at least was the best. I don’t like to read a book that is a thousand pages long on a computer screen. So I would read the text and use the electronic version to make notes and highlight, etc…

Then they switched to only e-books and we still had to pay the same price. I changed schools after that but not before making a hard push with a lot of students joining me to fight against it. The college basically said too bad. Besides myself I know of at least 14 other students that also changed.

The part that makes me the most angry. I still have the text books I paid for, but not access to the e-books that I paid the same amount of money for.

Stevan Harnad (profile) says:


I am haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

“Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?”

Not only has 100% OA been reachable through self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of journals have even given author self-archiving their explicit green light. Over 60% of them, including Elsevier — have given their green light to self-archive the refereed final draft (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

So why are researchers again boycotting instead of keystroking?


Joe Kraus (profile) says:

Slight error

It was noted: “another is the Research Works Act (RWA), which attempts to remove the public’s right to read the articles written by tax-funded researchers in open access journals.”

This isn’t quite right. The closed-access commercial publishers who support the RWA do not want the government to require that their non-OA journals allow for/provide OA access to the articles that had government funded research after a year or so. The research is not just in open access journals. But, they may be turning science opinion that direction with their behavior and actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Self-Inflicted Injury

At this late stage of the game, there is no excuse for academics to be having anything to do with Elsevier or any similarly abusive publisher. The behavior of these publishers has been well known for decades. The internet has allowed routing around them for 16 years and counting. Academics, stop inflicting injury on yourselves. Get some morals and some guts. Any academic who is still using the abusive publishers should cop some criticism. Social pressure works, use it.

BenK says:

Major Problem with this strategy

The big problem with this strategy is that in the conduct of research, one never knows where that critical piece of prior art may exist; that tidbit of a method or that prescient observation; and one must be able to read, and to cite, those. So, one cannot boycott a source of reliable research information. This undermines the entire logic of having all journals at one’s beck and call. It is destructive to the enterprise of science and also opens the door to the suggestion that libraries only stock a couple journals – because scientists can actually afford to ignore any that are, for some reason (ideological, financial), unavailable.

Barbara Fister says:

Re: Major Problem with this strategy

All the more reason to avoid locking up your publications in journals that are not available to most, published by a company that wants to prohibit the people from writing into the grants they provide scientists any expectation that the people will be able to read the grantees’ articles. Elsevier says the articles are their work and their property and that’s just not acceptable as a means of advancing science.

The boycott is against giving Elsevier your work so they can claim it is their intellectual property, not against citing articles they have published. Besides, how does “having all journals at one’s beck and call” work at the moment? It doesn’t, though Elsevier tells congresspeople that all you have to do is go to the library, so there is no access problem. They’ve been saying this for years in the face of the evidence.

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