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University of Pittsburgh

February 9, 2012

Protest launched against journal publisher

One British professor’s vow to cut ties to journal publishing giant Elsevier has spawned an outpouring of support from like-minded researchers worldwide.

The Amsterdam-based Elsevier publishes more than 2,600 journals in science, technology and health sciences.

The Jan. 21 post by Cambridge University mathematics professor Tim Gowers (http://gowers.wordpress.com) criticized Elsevier’s business practices and elaborated on his refusal to publish in, referee papers for or join the editorial board of any Elsevier publication.

The post, which in part cited Elsevier’s high prices and its support for U.S. legislation including the Research Works Act (HR 3699), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), struck a chord with others in the academic community and beyond.

To date, nearly 4,700  individuals, including a handful from Pitt, have signed an online declaration at www.thecostofknowledge.com, stating their intent to refrain from publishing, refereeing or doing editorial work in support of Elsevier journals.

Fellow mathematicians, including Juan Manfredi, Pitt’s vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, have made up the bulk of the early signers of the declaration. The University administration would not make Manfredi available to comment for this story.


Pitt researchers on board

Pitt mathematics professor Thomas Hales, who has joined the boycott, told the University Times that he has been displeased with the publisher’s business practices for years.

“Why should university researchers donate their labor and intellectual property to Elsevier, just to have the publisher turn around and charge university libraries exorbitant prices for access?” Hales said, adding that universities nationwide are facing severe budget cuts while commercial academic publishers are posting huge profits.

“We might all agree that it would be irrational for somebody to donate furniture to a store every morning and buy it back again every evening. Yet this is the accepted practice in publishing. We researchers create the content of the journals. We conduct the research, write the articles, referee the papers and staff the editorial boards. We do this for free every morning and buy the publications back again in the evening,” he said.

“It costs me nothing to submit my research articles to publishers that serve the interests of academia and the public good, rather than to publishers who put their commercial interests first.”

Also signing was Piotr Konieczny, a Pitt PhD candidate in sociology, who labeled the traditional academic publishing model obsolete in the Internet era.

“The current model restricts public access and drains the universities of funds that could be used on many other urgent needs,” he told the University Times.

“Open access is the future of academic publishing and the traditional publishers are a relic of the past that once was essential, but now is simply slowing the growth of our knowledge and limiting the access to it,” he said.

“I do not see why I should support them, but I clearly see why I and other academics should oppose them,” he said, citing Elsevier’s unfair pricing policies and support for initiatives such as the Research Works Act, which he said aims to restrict open access.

Attention beyond academia

The movement is attracting attention in academic circles and beyond.

The Coalition of Open Access Repositories, a German-based association of more than 80 repository initiatives in 24 countries, added its support in a Feb. 6 open letter to Elsevier (tinyurl.com/6rgu29z).

And, in a Jan. 28 commentary, Forbes magazine tech commentator Tim Worstall took note of the potential shakeup for Elsevier shareholders. Gowers’s move “looks like one of those pebbles that starts the avalanche,” Worstall wrote. He predicted the outcry could change how Elsevier is able to run its journal publishing business, noting that although academics must read and publish in journals, “it is possible to spark off a (nascent, to be sure) revolt, even here, if your business model is thought to be too unfair.”

Rush Miller

Rush Miller

“It’s about time”

University Library System director Rush Miller said, “It’s time for people to get mad about this if they care at all about the survival of scholarly communication. The system as it exists today is untenable. It’s unsustainable.

“Over the next 10 or 15 years it will collapse. If we don’t have other alternatives or other ways to disseminate knowledge, a decade from now we’re going to be in trouble,” he said. “We’ll have fewer and fewer people reading fewer and fewer journals if we don’t have open-access alternatives,” he said.

Miller said the move toward open-access publishing is not to tear down the established system, but to build around it with a better way to disseminate knowledge. “So, when scholarly publishing can really not be sustained, we’ll transition to something better and more affordable,” he said.

“Whether these commercial companies will become part of the solution or stay part of the problem remains to be seen.”

He said librarians have been trying to call attention to the increasingly high cost of commercially published journals for years.

“It’s about time that faculty woke up and realized their interests aren’t different from those of the librarians,” Miller said.

“Faculty in many disciplines have really not been concerned. They know what they need to do to get tenure and promotion,” he said, noting that the high-impact journals they need to publish in often are controlled by large commercial publishers. “They weren’t having to pay for journals out of their budgets. They just knew we needed to have them and they needed to publish in them.”

Commercial publishers are in business to make money, Miller pointed out. “They’re into maximizing value for shareholders. They’re not in business for altruistic, idealistic, distribution-of-knowledge kinds of motivations.” Faculty are beginning to recognize “these people don’t have our best interest at heart,” he said.


Why Elsevier?

Miller said a handful of commercial publishers including Wiley, Springer and Elsevier control the bulk of scientific journals and operate under similar business practices.

As for Elsevier: “I don’t think they’re the worst. They’re the biggest,” Miller said.

Another aspect that has made Elsevier a target for the boycott is its high-profile support for the Research Works Act, which has drawn broad criticism as an attempt to limit open access to scholarly knowledge, he said.

The proposed federal legislation (HR 3699) states, “No federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue or otherwise engage in any policy, program or other activity that:

“1. Causes, permits or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work or

“2. Requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”

The law would essentially dismantle the National Institutes of Health’s public-access policy, which requires scholarly papers that arise from NIH funding to be accessible to the public through NIH’s PubMed Central digital archive within 12 months of publication. Scientists must submit their final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts to PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.

Publishers’ support for such legislation is an indication that they are nervous about their grip on what long has been a captive market. “Their whole business model depends on total control,” Miller said, noting that the open-access and digital publishing movement is eroding that model.

A captive market

Commercial journal publishers have a near-monopoly, Miller said. “They provide an individual, unique product. They can price [a journal] anywhere they want to price it and those libraries and universities that think they need to have it because of status or credibility have to pay their price or they won’t have it.

“Over the past three or four decades, academic libraries — which make up the bulk of the market for scholarly journals — have seen double-digit price increases almost annually,” Miller said. “All these companies depend on the libraries for income and they will charge whatever they think they can get. Like any manufacturer, what the market will bear. And beyond.”

Between ULS and the Health Sciences Library System, subscriptions to Elsevier’s journals and health sciences databases cost about $2 million each year — at prices that are discounted through negotiated multiple-year “big deal” agreements with the publisher, Miller said.

Pitt has had three such five-year contracts and is beginning negotiations this week on another, he said, noting that while the deals have reduced annual increases over the past 15 years, they also limit the University’s flexibility to decrease the number of journal subscriptions.

Even with the benefit of “big deals” and discounts obtained through consortium pricing in cooperation with other research universities, keeping up with journal costs isn’t cheap.

Miller estimated it takes an increase of $500,000 each year just to maintain the status quo in journal subscriptions. “This University has been able to do that almost better than anyone else in the country until the last year or two,” when cutbacks in state support put enormous pressure on Pitt’s library budgets.


The impact of open access

Long traditions associated with print journals are eroding as new technologies make possible new ways of disseminating knowledge.

Merely converting print materials into a digital format for use online may save paper and ink costs, but “that’s counter to the ways computers can be used to maximize knowledge dissemination,” Miller said.

Currently, some 9,000 scholarly journals are being published in open-access form worldwide. ULS has been positioning itself as an open-access publisher through its D-Scribe program. To date, it publishes 30 e-journals with another five-10 titles expected in the coming year, Miller said.

New journals are being established using D-Scribe, but the program also aims to provide the resources that can help declining small-circulation scholarly journals survive in electronic form, “and hopefully convince them to convert to open access because costs are lower,” he said. In addition to the savings, open-access electronic formats equate to broader readership, which leads to more citations and raises a journal’s importance.

Miller sees further progress on the horizon. Noting that the value of journals lies in the content of the articles they contain, Miller said the dissemination of scholarly knowledge is going the way of news and newspapers.

Rather than wait for the morning paper to land on the doorstep, people access news online as it breaks, regardless of the time of day. In much the same way, scholarly literature is on its way to being read as it is produced, without the need to wait for the next issue of a journal to be published, he said.

The OA rhinoceros

The faculty-led boycott of Elsevier is “one more rock thrown on the pile” in a movement toward open access that’s gaining momentum, Miller said. “We’re not two bull elephants banging heads yet,” he said. “I used to say that we were a gnat trying to bite an elephant. Then we were like a bumblebee trying to bite an elephant.

“Now I think we’re more like a rhinoceros with a horn on the front of our noses. We have a fighting chance over time to make progress in creating a knowledge dissemination framework that isn’t so profit-driven and so outrageous in costs,” he said.

“What’s different about this is that it’s coming from the faculty,” Miller said. “Faculty finally are realizing it’s in their interest to do something about this to protest these business practices.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature, Volume 44 Issue 11

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