By Atreya Misra
Nearly 600,000 authors represent Elsevier, a publishing company that compiles, reviews, and publishes journals across academia. However, in recent months, over 5,700 authors have joined a boycott against the organization. A statement issued in January from 34 mathematicians charges that Elsevier, along with many other publishing companies, “charge exorbitantly high prices for subscription to individual journals…makes huge profits [through a bundle payment system]…and support measures such as SOPA and PIPA that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.”
Among the protestors include three field medalists – Timothy Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner – and the President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), Ingrid Daubechies. Clearly this is no small matter. Rather, it is part of a broader debate on the role publishing companies play in academia. As the protesters note, these companies rely on a peer review system that is largely voluntary and based on free labor – labor that is highly prized in the research world. Nonetheless, while researchers and authors take on the load of peer review, these companies are the ones raking in larger and larger profits by selling journals only in bundles. Thus, libraries around the world end up paying for journals they in reality never need, since only part of each bundle is what they really desire.
In a sense, then, the publishing houses are the middlemen that academics no longer see as absolutely necessary. Of course, they have a rich history in disseminating research and validating academic work, yet the protest is aimed more at changing commercial practices rather than the entire publishing apparatus.
Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, the man who started it all on January 21st of this year, posted on a blog post to get the attention of thousands of people worldwide on the fallacies of making revenue from this free labor. Nevertheless, it seems as though this conflict as gone unnoticed. In 2010, Elsevier reported profits hitting over $3.2 billion, a 36% profit. Even so, on a larger level, Congress made a stand after Gowers’ actions. First drafted in 2006, the Federal Research Public Access Act was reintroduced to Congress last month. This act would make information of federal researchers open to the public and forbid prices from being placed on research financed through public funding.
Hence, the issue of journal publishing reform continues. Elsevier, particularly, has been targeted because of the relatively high prices of its journals in relation to their academic reputations. Indeed, we believe that free access to scientific research bolsters innovation, and will only spur greater improvements in how public funding is targeted. Walling off research hinders academic cooperation, a key issue with the constant imposition of politics already stifling the flow of public funds. Steps need to be taken one at a time – already, Elsevier has backed off from its prior support of the Research Works Act, which would prohibit open access mandates on public research. Congress should act to increase the sharing of scientific advances by passing the Federal Research Public Access Act (H.R. 4004), which has already received 27 co-sponsors as of March 28th. Scholarly publication must continue, but not at the expense of public access.