Academics In Revolt Over Academic Publisher

Over 7500 academics have signed the online petition ‘The Cost of Knowledge’ asking the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier to rethink it’s attitude toward contributors and clients.

Academics are paid by the Universities and Government to produce research in science, medicine, mathematics and many other fields.

The information they give to publishing companies for free is supposed to be circulated around the academic community fairly, benefiting all the parties involved. Unfortunately, some companies are making it difficult for ordinary libraries and universities to afford the journals they need.

Elsevier and its questionable business model is the focus of a heated boycott by academics all over the world. It is just one of a number of publishers causing problems, but the largest offender in the eyes of the researchers.

Alex Holcombe, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Sydney, is a campaigner for alternatives to publishing with commercial and unethical academic publishers. He says that the movement’s main aim is to break away from unnecessary exploitation of researchers and to find alternative methods of information dissemination. “Every time a journal leaves one of these publishers, we experience at least some success,” he says.

“One of the things we hope for is that the editorial boards of some well-respected Elsevier journals might resign en masse (as happened some years ago with the journal Topology) and migrate to a more open format,” says Doctor Deborah Apthorp, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney.

“It would be naive to expect Elsevier to change its ways. That is not the point. I think the point is to get a critical mass of researchers to agree that there must be another way.”

There are a number of different models which promote open-access circulation of information that could liberate researchers from massive publishers such as Elsevier. With the speed of research in some areas of science, there have already been methods other than print publishing introduced and adopted.

In some areas of study the scientists move so fast that by the time journals get around to publishing the material, it is already redundant. Therefore they upload their discoveries to a website for their peers to visit free of charge.

Dr Holcombe says “the leading researchers in the field barely look at the journals anymore because they want to stay on the leading edge. They just look at whatever people have uploaded to that website that week. Some of those will eventually end up in journals, but by then a lot of people in the area have already moved on.”

“The broadest issue is that Elsevier and other publishers are parasites on government and University funds that pay for the subscriptions for the journals because unlike other businesses they happen to be in the position to be able to charge very high prices because they have no fear of competitors,” says Dr Holcombe. “They own certain journal titles that researchers have to be able to publish in to end up getting more grants and promotions.”

While this may well be the biggest issue being faced by researchers dealing with the company, Elsevier’s objectionable practices seem to be numerous.

Late last month, Elsevier was targeted by pressure groups to drop their support of a threatening US Bill called the Research Works Act. The legislation is currently moving through US congress and is feared may seriously damage the distribution of free medical and academic data.

The Bill would make the current National Institute of Health practise illegal. The practise in question requires that researchers funded by the national institutes of health in the US make their information freely available to the public after a year of publication.

Dr Apthorp has reservations about the Act, saying “it threatens the dissemination of knowledge in the international research community, and this is particularly an issue for researchers in poorer countries where there may not be institutional access to journal subscriptions.”

“A lot of people imagine that there is an economic return to the researchers who provide the research but in academia most researchers don’t get any economic reward,” Dr Holcombe says, refuting the perception that scholars are supported financially by the journals.

“We don’t get any royalties or fee or money whatsoever from the journals who publish our articles which is why it particularly galls some people to see the companies getting such profits when they’re doing the work for free.”

Researchers were unimpressed by the large company’s support of this bill which was one of the many points outlined in their boycott. As a result, Elsevier has withdrawn its endorsement, stating that they “have heard concerns from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers that the Act would be seen as a step backwards for expanding options for free and low cost public access to scholarly literature.  That was certainly not the intention of the legislation or our intention in supporting it.”

Elsevier’s official statement, earlier this month, put forward the claim that they would remain in opposition to government mandates attempting to regulate what companies can and cannot charge for information but that they would discontinue their support for the Act itself.

“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,” it said.

The company also created fake publications in Australia for promotion of pharmaceutical products. Dr Holcombe says “they masqueraded as standard peer-reviewed scientific journals but actually they were just publishing articles which were being written by the pharmaceutical companies to make their drugs look good.”

Dr Apthorp advocates student involvement. “There is nothing to stop students signing the petition, and some of them have. Students could also talk to their lecturers about publishing models or raise the question in tutorials (although be prepared for blank looks),” she says.

She also encourages students to subscribe to open-access publishing in personal areas of interest and spread articles they find relevant on social media. She also believes that lobbying for open-access and informing people of the dangers of the Research Works Act could help the cause.

Lily Ray