The Research Works Act, open access and publisher boycotts
31st Jan 2012
The open access movement has been around for decades, gradually building up, but this month there seems to have been an acceleration in the pace of change. I will try in this post to summarise the current situation as I see it.
The initial driver of this recent change was theResearch Works Act (RWA), a draft law proposed in the US that would prohibit federal bodies from mandating that taxpayer-funded research be made freely accessible online (as the NIH currently does). The two Representatives who are sponsoring the RWA, Darrell Issa and Carolyn Maloney, have received considerable amounts of money from the publisher Elsevier, which publishes many journals and is against open access (as reported on Michael Eisen’s blog).
The second important event was the decision of Cambridge mathematics professor and Fields Medal winner Timothy Gowers to publish a blog post on 21 January entitled ‘Elsevier — my part in its downfall‘ (after the late Spike Milligan’s book ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall‘. (Gowers was the initiator of the Polymath Project, an experiment in open collaboration online between thousands of mathematicians, which Michael Nielsen lauded highly in his TED talk on open science.) Gowers summarised the criticisms of Elsevier:
- Their very high prices
- Their practice of ‘bundling’ journals into collections that libraries have to subscribe to together
- Their ‘ruthless’ negotiation tactics with libraries
- Their support of the RWA, and of the related acts SOPA and PIPA (both now postponed).
He was already quietly avoiding publishing in Elsevier journals and avoiding reviewing for them. But he decided that this quiet approach wasn’t enough: he called for coordinated action by academics. He comments that ‘Elsevier is not the only publisher to behave in an objectionable way. However, it seems to be the worst’.
This led mathematician Tyler Neylon to set up ‘The cost of knowledge‘, a page where researchers could publicly declare that they ‘will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate’. As of writing, this has over 2300 signatures.
In the past week the usual trickle of blog posts about open access and Elsevier has turned into a flood. I’ll pick out a few here:
- Aram Harrow, a US researcher working on the mathematics of quantum mechanics and a co-blogger at ‘The Quantum Pontiff‘, asked ‘Why boycott Elsevier?‘, suggesting that a boycott was not enough – the system needs to change so that journals don’t hold copyright (though he didn’t make any concrete proposals).
- On the Guardian‘s online comment pages, Mike Taylor, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, UK, claimed that ‘Academic publishers have become the enemies of science‘.
- Joshua Gans on the economics blog Digitopoly said that ‘Elsevier’s economic case is lacking‘.
- Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London, UK, explained ‘Why I chose to decline an invitation to review by Elsevier‘.
- Danny Kingsley gave an Australian view: ‘A small bill in the US, a giant impact for research worldwide‘.
- DrugMonkey (the blog of a US NIH-funded researcher) asked: ‘Who will shelter the “shitasse” society journals?‘; that is, he suggested that researchers could demand that the journals published by their scientific societies stop working with publishers such as Elsevier.
- UCSF biologist Benoit Bruneau wrote a guest post on Stephen Curry’s blog considering what scholarly societies should do if their journals are published by Elsevier.
Elsevier and their allies have responded:
- Graham Taylor of the UK Publishers Association in the Guardian: ‘Branding academic publishers ‘enemies of science’ is offensive and wrong‘
- Tom Reller, Vice President Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier, commented on Mike Eisen’s blog
But The Lancet, which is published by Elsevier, has said it ‘strongly opposes‘ the RWA, saying: ‘This short and hastily put together legislation is not in the interests of either science or the public’.
The coverage is now reaching the mainstream:
- David Dobbs listed some of the scientists supporting the boycott in Wired magazine (Testify: The Open-Science Movement Catches Fire)
- Forbes (‘Elsevier’s Publishing Model Might be About to Go Up in Smoke)
- Chronicle of Higher Education (Elsevier Publishing Boycott Gathers Steam Among Academics)
It will be interesting to see what Elsevier says in a statement that was expected today, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
* * * *
So, where do I stand? I am a freelance editor, working directly or indirectly for scientists and for publishers, on both open access and closed access journals. I worked for two years for Elsevier and then five years for BioMed Central, one of the leading open access publishers, and part of my job at BMC was to advocate for open access. I’m not a great fan of Elsevier, partly for the reasons that others give as described above, and partly because I think they (like many other publishers) are too keen on cutting costs and not keen enough on ensuring quality in their publications.
All this means that I am sympathetic to the open access movement but am not an active advocate of it. I’m not currently in a position to refuse to work for closed access publishers, nor would that have much effect on their policies. When helping scientists choose where to submit their papers, I try to dispassionately present the arguments for different types of journals and encourage them to investigate open-access options, but the decision is up to them.
What I’d like to do is think through what effect a boycott would have on each affected journal. The first people to suffer will be the editors who handle manuscripts. Usually they have to ask several people before they get two reviewers to agree to look at a paper – with the boycott, they will get more noes before they get enough yeses. If the editors are in-house staff, will this filter up to their managers, and to their managers’ managers, up to the top of the company? Maybe, but only if the proportion of people saying no to reviewing for the journal is big enough. And in the mean time the editors, who have no say in the policies of their company, will be having a hard time.
One way the boycott could perhaps be more effective would be if it focused on a few journals in well-defined, small fields where there is a limited pool of potential reviewers. In a small field, it might be possible for a sizeable proportion of researchers to refuse to review for a particular journal, so this would have a bigger effect.
I would hope that those refusing make their reasons clear (as in this example letter) so that in-house staff aren’t left wondering what is going on. The boycotters will also need to make it clear to the staff that it is their employers they have a problem with, not the editors and editorial assistants themselves. Extreme politeness and chocolate might go down well!
I hope everyone will also remember that there are many researchers who need to publish to keep their jobs or get funding and tenure. Not everyone has a free choice of where to submit their paper. Those who do not join the boycott should not be assumed to be enemies of it.
So if you are boycotting any particular publisher, spare a thought for both the in-house staff who have to put up with it and for the researchers who can’t join in.