- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

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.

Miklos Abert, a professor at Hungary’s Alfred Renyi Institute of Mathematics, told Elsevier on the posting board that he and other researchers “do not really need you guys. You still need us, so get off your high horse.”

For many universities, museums and libraries, journal subscription costs are beginning to break the bank.

Michigan State, for example, paid about $11 million in the 2008-09 school year for journal subscriptions, up from about $3 million in 1986, said Mr. Solomon, who also serves on the institution’s library committee.

Such expensive investments are necessary for schools to keep up with their peers, most of which keep their shelves stocked and electronic databases filled with the latest research.

The problem, Mr. Solomon said, stems from the concept of “bundling,” a system in which universities “get stuck paying for a bunch of journals they don’t want [in order] to get an affordable price on the ones they need.”

Many in the academic world continue to advocate for more “open-access” publishing, in which scholarly research is posted to the Internet and available free of charge as an alternative to the traditional method of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Others point out that the peer-review journal system isn’t cheap, and companies such as Elsevier shouldn’t be publicly shamed for making profits.

The firm, which publishes work from more than 600,000 authors, relies on more than 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members and 300,000 reviewers. It also employs more than 7,000 full-time workers in 24 countries, and publishes about 2,000 periodic journals and nearly 20,000 reference books on topics ranging from dentistry to astrophysics.

“Access to content is only one part of our duty to the research community,” the firm said in a recent statement addressing the mounting boycott.

“Ensuring quality content within our journals allows the broader community not only to read the latest research, but trust that it is factual, original and of the highest ethical standards. We recognize that there are shortcomings, and even frustrations, associated with the traditional manuscript submission and peer-review processes. Our aim is to help facilitate and develop fast, effective and truly innovative solutions,” the company said.

In addition to backing away from the RWA, Elsevier is taking other steps to tamp down growing frustration. The company recently announced that it will seek to lower prices for more of its mathematics publications. It has already dropped costs for the Journal of Algebra and Topology and its Applications, among others, the firm said in its statement.

Elsevier is also eyeing a number of new “open-access publishing options,” and has posted to the Internet archives of its 14 core math journals. Future editions will be available free of charge on the Web four years after publication.

While such changes may not entirely quell the rebellion, Elsevier’s detractors acknowledge that the company has been receptive to recent criticism.

“I give them credit for making the concessions they have made,” Mr. Solomon said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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