Scientists protest cost of research journals

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Call it the white-coat revolution.

But instead of a Tunisian man burning himself about his vegetable cart, it’s research scientists protesting the high cost of the Communications in Nonlinear Science and Numerical Simulation journal.

In an unprecedented global backlash, nearly 7,700 academics — ranging from renowned professors to graduate students, and hailing from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, South America and elsewhere — have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier, the world’s largest research-journal publisher.

The petition calls on the multibillion-dollar, international powerhouse to radically change its business practices and dramatically lower the prices for its more than 2,000 journals, the cost for which the petitioners say is a form of extortion against university libraries and other institutions.

Elsevier defends itself by saying that the rigorous peer-review process does not come cheaply, and that any scientist or researcher is free to work outside of it and/or self-publish.

Regardless, the outcry is already having an effect on the company.

On Monday, Elsevier announced that it was withdrawing its support of the Research Works Act (RWA), a now-defunct piece of legislation that would have allowed researchers to keep federally funded work private. Current law requires such work to go into open-access databases that are available to the general public.

The same day, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced that it was pulling the plug on the bill, which had angered many in the academic world who thought the measure would have greatly restricted access to cutting-edge work in science and medicine, or made it costlier to acquire.

“We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders,” the company said in a statement.

But the firm’s backtrack on the RWA isn’t enough for professors such as Michigan State University’s David Solomon, who says his institution is at the financial mercy of companies like Elsevier.

“Increases in journal subscription costs over the years is what this boycott is really about. It is decimating our research libraries,” said Mr. Solomon, an honored professor of medicine. “Libraries have no choice but to pay the subscription prices for these journals. In some cases, our library needs specific journals for our graduate programs to stay accredited. Publishers know that, and often take advantage.”

Other instructors have voiced similar complaints at thecostofknowledge.com, the online headquarters of the anti-Elsevier movement.

Paul Blanchon, a professor of earth and planetary science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has dubbed the protest the “Science Spring” and declared, “Long live the revolution.”

Others, such as the Occupy movement, have made different political analogies.

“What took us so long to do this? Perhaps this is another example of the 99 percent pushing back at the 1 percent monied interests,” wrote Julia Hammett, an anthropology professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev.

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