from the idea-whose-time-has-come dept
Over three years ago, we wrote about a fast-growing boycott of the academic publisher Elsevier, organised in protest at that company's high prices, its "bundling" of journals into larger collections, and its support for SOPA. Even though over 15,000 people eventually pledged not to work with Elsevier, the company is still going strong, making huge profits from the work of academics, and putting paywalls between the public and knowledge. Perhaps we should have guessed it would end like that. As we noted then, this was not the first or biggest boycott in the history of open access. In 2000, 34,000 scientists from 180 nations signed up to the following:
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, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.
The failure by many of them to follow through on that promise did have one positive effect: it led to the creation of what remains perhaps the most influential open access publisher, the Public Library of Science, which is still around today, and flourishing. Both of these unsuccessful attempts to use boycotts to push forward open access are mentioned in a post by Dr Danny Kingsley on the Unlocking Research blog, which reports on yet another attempt to use this approach:
A long running dispute between Dutch universities and Elsevier has taken an interesting turn. Yesterday Koen Becking, chairman of the Executive Board of Tilburg University who has been negotiating with scientific publishers about an open access policy on behalf of Dutch universities with his colleague Gerard Meijer, announced a plan to start boycotting Elsevier.
And here's why Kingsley thinks this time the boycott might work:
As a first step in boycotting the publisher, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has asked all scientists that are editor in chief of a journal published by Elsevier to give up their post. If this way of putting pressure on the publishers does not work, the next step would be to ask reviewers to stop working for Elsevier. After that, scientists could be asked to stop publishing in Elsevier journals.
Typically negotiations with publishers occur at an institutional level and with representatives from the university libraries. This makes sense as libraries have long standing relationships with publishers and understand the minutiae of the licencing processes . However the Dutch negotiations have been led by the Vice Chancellors of the universities. It is a country-wide negotiation at the highest level. And Vice Chancellors have the ability to request behaviour change of their research communities.
That exposes what went wrong with the previous boycotts: they were carried out by the researchers, who have very little clout individually or even collectively when it comes to putting pressure on huge companies like Elsevier. But the Vice Chancellors have real power, based on the ability to instruct their respective institutions how they should -- or shouldn't -- act, including, presumably, how they spend their money on journal subscriptions.
The Dutch seem to be serious about making open access the norm in their country. A recent amendment to the country's copyright act means that authors are now entitled by law to make the results of their research available under open access licenses. As a short notice on the University of Utrecht site explains:
This means that university staff no longer have to lay down the right to publish open access in agreements with publishers. After the amendment of the law they have and keep this right automatically. With the publisher they only have to reach an agreement on the length of 'a reasonable period of time'.
Even without the boycott, then, Elsevier will be obliged to agree to release research that is completely or partly paid for by the Dutch government as open access after that "reasonable period of time." All-in-all, now might be a good moment for the company to take a more accommodating approach to open access than it has in the past.