Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Scholars' Journal Boycott: Open Access Rebellion

On January 21, Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers posted on a blog, griping about the publisher Elsevier (and others). He did a very nice job listing the problems that librarians have complained about as consumer issues:
1. It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.

2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as “bundling”, where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of journals (chosen by them) or nothing at all. So if some Elsevier journals in the “bundle” are indispensable to a library, that library is forced to subscribe at very high subscription rates to a large number of journals, across all the sciences, many of which they do not want. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.) Given that libraries have limited budgets, this often means that they cannot subscribe to journals that they would much rather subscribe to, so it is not just libraries that are harmed, but other publishers, which is of course part of the motivation for the scheme.

3. If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.

4. Elsevier supports many of the measures, such as the Research Works Act (112 HR 3699), that attempt to stop the move to open access. They also supported SOPA (112 HR 3261) and PIPA (112 S 968) and lobbied strongly for them.

I could carry on, but I’ll leave it there.
Professor Gowers notes that scholars can fight back by refusing to continue editing for, publishing in or doing peer reviews for such journals. He notes that he has stopped doing these things in Elsevier journals and encourages others to do so. I notice that his post has received 31 comments to date, and 83 people have used Google to +1 it, 614 people have shared it on Facebook, and 778 have tweeted it on Twitter, so this is a very hot post.

Gowers wondered if there might be a website where mathematicians who want to boycott Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. Within a day or two, The Cost of Knowledge appeared, providing just such a website. Scholars from a wide variety of fields (law is not listed, but is subsumed under "social sciences") have signed, and are listed in alphabetical order. Science, math and humanities are all represented. The impressive part is that the protesters pledging to forgo publishing in journals such as The Lancet and Cell, include not just "made" scholars, but tenure track junior scholars, who are truly putting a great deal on the line by joining the protest. As of right now (Feb. 8, 3 PM ) there are 4,713 signatories total on The Cost of Knowledge.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted the protest and notes that Elsevier has felt enough pressure to make a statement in response. Librarians who look at the article will not be surprised by any of the justifications from the Elsevier spokeswoman: The steep price increases of the 1980's are a thing of the past and are coloring the perceptions of the problem now. Elsevier claims that it invests a lot in metadata tagging that adds value and links articles together, making research more efficient(and that would not be available if the scholars published their own materials -- UNLESS they worked with librarians!).
The company's support of the Research Works Act is driven by its investment in those products, [the spokeswoman] added: "It's not a disavowal of the National Institutes of Health or of open access. We are just trying to avoid inflexible regulations." The company was the first and largest contributor to PubMed Central, the NIH repository of free, full-text articles,....

Mr. Gowers, ... told The Chronicle that researchers can now evaluate and review one another's papers on open Web sites. "That would be far cheaper than anything a commercial publisher could hope to offer, and just as effective," he noted.

Nor does the Elsevier infrastructure impress younger scholars like Mr. Abrahams. "It could disappear tomorrow, and I'd never notice that it's gone," he said.
If I were Elsevier, and other, similar journal publishers, I think I would be worrying a bit.

1 comment:

LawLib said...

Legal Reference Services Quarterly is published and distributed online these days by Routledge / Taylor & Francis. My library’s annual subscription was billed this year at $432, for both paper and online. We asked about how much we could save by moving to online only; the answer is $28; an online-only subscription comes to $404 a year.

Last summer we discovered that we had inadvertently discarded a large run of LRSQ in paper – volumes covering 1988 - 2003. (The circumstances behind this inadvertent discard would make a separate post unto themselves.) Our electronic subscription gives us access only back to 1997. We can purchase articles from before 1997 at $36 a shot, plus tax.

So we inquired with Taylor & Francis Online about the cost of getting electronic access to the volumes we had discarded. They told us that for archival access (i.e., 1996 back to the first volume), one must subscribe to an entire subject collection and pay an additional "Online Archive" fee (or purchase the archive outright); there is no title-level subscription upgrading. And so, for example, to get access from 1996 back to 1981 for LRSQ, we would have to pay $3,850 annually for a subscription to the 30 titles in the "Library & Information Science" collection (this gives us access back to 1997), plus $1,150.00 annually (or $6,900 outright purchase) for the archive fee (this gives us access from 1996-1981).

When my Serials Librarian told me this, my reply cannot be published in a family blog.

As I’m sure you know, AALL members make frequent contributions to LRSQ, and the journal is edited by a prominent member of AALL…