Sci­en­tists protest cost of re­search jour­nals

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Call it the white-coat rev­o­lu­tion. But in­stead of a Tu­nisian man burn­ing him­self about his vegetable cart, it’s re­search sci­en­tists protest­ing the high cost of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Non­lin­ear Sci­ence and Nu­mer­i­cal Sim­u­la­tion jour­nal.

In a global back­lash, nearly 7,700 aca­demics — rang­ing from renowned pro­fes­sors to grad­u­ate stu­dents, and hail­ing from the U.S., Europe, the Mid­dle East, South Amer­ica and else­where — have signed on to a boy­cott of El­se­vier, the world’s largest re­search-jour­nal pub­lisher.

The pe­ti­tion calls on the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar, in­ter­na­tional pow­er­house to rad­i­cally change its busi­ness prac­tices and dra­mat­i­cally lower the prices for its more than 2,000 jour­nals, the cost for which the pe­ti­tion­ers say is a form of ex­tor­tion against univer­sity li­braries and other in­sti­tu­tions.

El­se­vier de­fends it­self by say­ing that the rig­or­ous peer-re­view process does not come cheaply, and that any sci­en­tist or re­searcher is free to work out­side of it and/or self-pub­lish.

Re­gard­less, the out­cry is al­ready hav­ing an ef­fect on the com­pany.

On Mon­day, El­se­vier an­nounced that it was with­draw­ing its sup­port of the Re­search Works Act (RWA), a nowde­funct piece of leg­is­la­tion that would have al­lowed re­searchers to keep fed­er­ally funded work pri­vate. Cur­rent law re­quires such work to go into open-ac­cess data­bases that are avail­able to the gen­eral public.

The same day, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee an­nounced that it was pulling the plug on the bill, which had an­gered many in the aca­demic world who thought the mea­sure would have greatly re­stricted ac­cess to cut­ting-edge work in sci­ence and medicine, or made it costlier to ac­quire.

“We hope this will ad­dress some of the con­cerns expressed and help cre­ate a less heated and more pro­duc­tive cli­mate for our on­go­ing dis­cus­sions with re­search fun­ders,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

But the firm’s back­track on the RWA isn’t enough for pro­fes­sors such as Michi­gan State Univer­sity’s David Solomon, who says his in­sti­tu­tion is at the fi­nan­cial mercy of com­pa­nies like El­se­vier.

“In­creases in jour­nal sub­scrip­tion costs over the years is what this boy­cott is re­ally about. It is dec­i­mat­ing our re­search li­braries,” said Mr. Solomon, an hon­ored pro­fes­sor of medicine. “Li­braries have no choice but to pay the sub­scrip­tion prices for these jour­nals. In some cases, our li­brary needs spe­cific jour­nals for our grad­u­ate pro­grams to stay ac­cred­ited. Pub­lish­ers know that, and of­ten take ad­van­tage.”

Other in­struc­tors have voiced sim­i­lar com­plaints at the­costof­knowl­edge.com, the on­line head­quar­ters of the anti-el­se­vier move­ment.

Paul Blan­chon, a pro­fes­sor of earth and plan­e­tary sci­ence at the Na­tional Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity of Mex­ico, has dubbed the protest the “Sci­ence Spring” and de­clared, “Long live the rev­o­lu­tion.”

Oth­ers, such as the Oc­cupy move­ment, have made dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal analo­gies.

“What took us so long to do this? Per­haps this is an­other ex­am­ple of the 99 per­cent push­ing back at the 1 per­cent monied in­ter­ests,” wrote Ju­lia Ham­mett, an an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Truc­kee Mead­ows Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Reno, Nev.

Mik­los Abert, a pro­fes­sor at Hun­gary’s Al­fred Renyi In­sti­tute of Math­e­mat­ics, told El­se­vier on the post­ing board that he and other re­searchers “do not re­ally need you guys. You still need us, so get off your high horse.”

For many uni­ver­si­ties, mu­se­ums and li­braries, jour­nal sub­scrip­tion costs are be­gin­ning to break the bank.

Michi­gan State, for ex­am­ple, paid about $11 mil­lion in the 2008-09 school year for jour­nal sub­scrip­tions, up from about $3 mil­lion in 1986, said Mr. Solomon, who also serves on the in­sti­tu­tion’s li­brary com­mit­tee.

Such ex­pen­sive in­vest­ments are nec­es­sary for schools to keep up with their peers, most of which keep their shelves stocked and elec­tronic data­bases filled with the lat­est re­search.

The prob­lem, Mr. Solomon said, stems from the con­cept of “bundling,” a sys­tem in which uni­ver­si­ties “get stuck pay­ing for a bunch of jour­nals they don’t want [in or­der] to get an af­ford­able price on the ones they need.”

Many in the aca­demic world con­tinue to ad­vo­cate for more “open-ac­cess” pub­lish­ing, in which schol­arly re­search is posted to the In­ter­net and avail­able free of charge as an al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional method of pub­lish­ing in peer-re­viewed jour­nals.

Oth­ers point out that the peer-re­view jour­nal sys­tem isn’t cheap, and com­pa­nies such as El­se­vier shouldn’t be pub­licly shamed for mak­ing prof­its.

The firm, which pub­lishes work from more than 600,000 au­thors, re­lies on more than 7,000 jour­nal ed­i­tors, 70,000 ed­i­to­rial board mem­bers and 300,000 re­view­ers. It also em­ploys more than 7,000 full-time work­ers in 24 coun­tries, and pub­lishes about 2,000 pe­ri­odic jour­nals and nearly 20,000 ref­er­ence books on top­ics rang­ing from den­tistry to astro­physics.

“Ac­cess to con­tent is only one part of our duty to the re­search com­mu­nity,” the firm said in a re­cent state­ment ad­dress­ing the mount­ing boy­cott.

“En­sur­ing qual­ity con­tent within our jour­nals al­lows the broader com­mu­nity not only to read the lat­est re­search, but trust that it is fac­tual, orig­i­nal and of the high­est eth­i­cal stan­dards. We rec­og­nize that there are short­com­ings, and even frus­tra­tions, as­so­ci­ated with the tra­di­tional man­u­script sub­mis­sion and peer-re­view pro­cesses. Our aim is to help fa­cil­i­tate and de­velop fast, ef­fec­tive and truly in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions,” the com­pany said.

In ad­di­tion to back­ing away from the RWA, El­se­vier is tak­ing other steps to tamp down grow­ing frus­tra­tion. The com­pany re­cently an­nounced that it will seek to lower prices for more of its math­e­mat­ics publi­ca­tions. It has al­ready dropped costs for the Jour­nal of Al­ge­bra and Topol­ogy and its Ap­pli­ca­tions, among oth­ers, the firm said in its state­ment.

El­se­vier is also eye­ing a num­ber of new “open-ac­cess pub­lish­ing op­tions,” and has posted to the In­ter­net archives of its 14 core math jour­nals. Fu­ture edi­tions will be avail­able free of charge on the Web four years af­ter pub­li­ca­tion.

While such changes may not en­tirely quell the re­bel­lion, El­se­vier’s de­trac­tors ac­knowl­edge that the com­pany has been re­cep­tive to re­cent crit­i­cism.

“I give them credit for mak­ing the con­ces­sions they have made,” Mr. Solomon said.

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