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:

  1. Their very high prices
  2. Their practice of ‘bundling’ journals into collections that libraries have to subscribe to together
  3. Their ‘ruthless’ negotiation tactics with libraries
  4. 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:

Elsevier and their allies have responded:

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’.

and others have criticised these responses (e.g. Mike Eisen, Drug Monkey).

The coverage is now reaching the mainstream:

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.


12 Comments on “The Research Works Act, open access and publisher boycotts

Mike Taylor says:

I’m sympathetic to the plight of the editors of boycotted journals. It’s a nasty bit of collateral damage. But I blogged about this very issue a few weeks ago and reluctantly concluded that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being in a war. Which we are — and not one of our own making. In the end, I hope that editors put in a difficult position by review boycotts will consider adding an editing boycott, too: one of my colleagues recently resigned his position as an associate editor on an Elsevier journal and another is actively looking for another editorial post to take up so he can resign his Elsevier post.

“I would hope that those refusing make their reasons clear … 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.”

I strongly agree with this. It isn’t just that it’s only fair to the editors, but also that a clearly worded (but polite!) declining letter is an important opportunity to get the message across, to the editors themselves and hopefully to those higher up the food chain.

sharmanedit says:

I hadn’t seen your post about collateral damage, Mike – thanks for linking to it. The suggestion of sending a letter explaining your reasons for refusing to review not only to the handling editor but also to the publisher and the authors of the paper is a good one. The discussion in the comments also partly answers Dorothy Bishop’s question below.

I don’t understand your comment “Not everyone has a free choice of where to submit their paper.” Do you mean because of co-authors? I’m genuinely puzzled.

sharmanedit says:

I was thinking mainly of PhD students and postdocs whose lab heads are unsympathetic to the arguments for open access. Yesterday, in an interesting discussion on Twitter around these issues, @biochembelle said “As a postdoc, I must consider limitations/expectations of adviser. If I suggested we go to journal where we’d have to pay $1k to $3k for publication, I’d be laughed out of room.” (see the Storify of the conversation at I was also thinking of those whose funding bodies (or potential funding bodies) use impact factor as the sole measure of journal quality. Mike Taylor’s post on collateral damage (mentioned in his comment) also has discussion about the lack of choice that some researchers have.

Nico (@nfanget) says:

Disclaimer: I work at Nature.
Thanks for putting the staff’s side of a boycott Anna. Although it might create problems for editors and other editorial staff, I am more concerned about the effect on the authors whose manuscript lies unreviewed while the editor scrambles for reviewers. The time to reject/accept in some disciplines is already very long, a boycott doesn’t help in that area.

sharmanedit says:

I completely agree that boycotting reviewing may cause problems for the author for whose manuscript it becomes difficult to find reviewers. That’s why I like Mike Taylor’s suggestion that boycotters explain to the author as well as the journal why they are refusing to review the manuscript. At least then they can make an informed choice to wait or withdraw the manuscript, and will know that the editors are not causing the delay.

harnad says:

“Research Works Act H.R.3699:
The Private Publishing Tail Trying To Wag The Public Research Dog, Yet Again”


The US Research Works Act (H.R.3699): “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.”

Translation and Comments:

“If public tax money is used to fund research, that research becomes “private research” once a publisher “adds value” to it by managing the peer review.”

[Comment: Researchers do the peer review for the publisher for free, just as researchers give their papers to the publisher for free, together with the exclusive right to sell subscriptions to it, on-paper and online, seeking and receiving no fee or royalty in return].

“Since that public research has thereby been transformed into “private research,” and the publisher’s property, the government that funded it with public tax money should not be allowed to require the funded author to make it accessible for free online for those users who cannot afford subscription access.”

[Comment: The author’s sole purpose in doing and publishing the research, without seeking any fee or royalties, is so that all potential users can access, use and build upon it, in further research and applications, to the benefit of the public that funded it; this is also the sole purpose for which public tax money is used to fund research.]”

H.R. 3699 misunderstands the secondary, service role that peer-reviewed research journal publishing plays in US research and development and its (public) funding.

It is a huge miscalculation to weigh the potential gains or losses from providing or not providing open access to publicly funded research in terms of gains or losses to the publishing industry: Lost or delayed research progress mean losses to the growth and productivity of both basic research and the vast R&D industry in all fields, and hence losses to the US economy as a whole.

What needs to be done about public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research?

The minimum policy is for all US federal funders to mandate (require), as a condition for receiving public funding for research, that: (i) the fundee’s revised, accepted refereed final draft of (ii) all refereed journal articles resulting from the funded research must be (iii) deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication (iv) in the fundee’’s institutional repository, with (v) access to the deposit made free for all (OA) immediately (no OA embargo) wherever possible (over 60% of journals already endorse immediate gratis OA self-archiving), and at the latest after a 6-month embargo on OA.

It is the above policy that H.R.3699 is attempting to make illegal…

sharmanedit says:

Thanks for providing more detail on the objections to the act, harnad.

harnad says:


While the worldwide researcher community is again busy working itself up into an indignant lather with yet another publisher boycott threat, I am still haunted by a “keystroke koan”:

“Why did 34,000 researchers sign a threat in 2000 to boycott their journals unless those journals agreed to provide open access to their articles – when the researchers themselves could provide open access (OA) to their own articles by self-archiving them on their own institutional websites?”

Not only has 100% OA been reachable through author self-archiving as of at least 1994, but over 90% of all refereed journals (published by 65% of all refereed journal publishers) have already given their explicit green light to some form of author self-archiving — with over 60% of all journals, including Elsevier’s — giving their authors the green light to self-archive their refereed final drafts (“postprint”) immediately upon acceptance for publication…

So why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking, with yet another dozen years of needlessly lost research access and impact already behind us?

We have met the enemy, Pogo, and it’s not Elsevier.

(And this is why keystroke mandates are necessary; just keying out boycott threats to publishers is not enough.)

sharmanedit says:

Thanks for this comment. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘keystroking’ here. But I do understand that you are advocating self-archiving after publication in journals. I’m not sure that all advocates of the Elsevier boycott would agree that this is sufficient. But I’ll leave it to them (or opponents of the boycott) to reply to your comment.

Andy Farke says:

There’s academic life outside large research universities, and most of this life isn’t at a place with an institutional repository. I agree 100% that more researchers need to use their institutional options, but let’s not forget that the playing field is far from level in terms of these options. Hence the push for open access!

[…] my post earlier this week for the background on this. The list of researchers who have pledged not to support Elsevier […]

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