by David Thew, Director, Publisher & Content Provider Recruitment at TFPL ([email protected]; +44 (0) 20 7332 6076)
Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher, has recently been the subject of a boycott by a group of senior academics refusing to submit research articles to journals, participate in peer review of research prior to publication or participate in editorial boards which help define the editorial strategy of the publications. The Cost of Knowledge petition (http://thecostofknowledge.com) , which as of today has over 7000 signatures, calls for a boycott of Elsevier on the grounds that:
- the publisher charges ‘exorbitantly’ high prices for journal subscriptions
- libraries are forced to opt for ‘bundled’ deals (the so-called Big Deal) to benefit from discounting, which often means they buy journals they would not otherwise subscribe to
- Elsevier supports legislative moves to ‘restrict the free exchange of information’, including the US Research Works Act, which contains provisions restricting open access mandates for publicly-funded research.
The fact is that the Big Deal has been in existence for a long time and is not exclusive to Elsevier by any means. Certainly it has been the subject of ongoing debate as libraries across the globe have seen their budgets slashed, and the model may be under threat, but as yet most of the major scholarly publishers seem to suggest their larger deals have held up pretty well. As a single cause of dissent, therefore, it is perhaps something of a red herring. The major catalyst for the recent boycott is more likely to be Elsevier’s overt support for legislation restricting Open Access.
Open Access, the model by which access to published scholarly research is effectively free at the point of use, is a complex issue and one which has many shades of opinion within both the academic research and publishing communities. At a very basic level, the core argument for the academics is that scientific research which is publicly funded should be accessible free of charge. For the publishers, the counter argument is that they add value to the research through peer review and other editorial processes, production, dissemination in print and online to an often global audience and linking to other relevant research. All of this costs money and the publisher rightly seeks a return. Various models have been proposed, and some adopted, which seek a middle ground, and most of the major scholarly publishers, including Elsevier, have introduced Open Access models or hybrid mixed models within their portfolios. The challenge is to find a model which gives an acceptable level of free access to researchers whilst generating a sufficient return for the publisher without compromising the quality, relevance and ‘impact factor’ of the research.
By openly embracing and endorsing legislative moves to restrict Open Access, Elsevier appears to the dissenters to suggest it opposes any moves to create a more mixed model or even to engage in the debate. The boycott could be seen as a fruitless gesture, but it has really gathered pace and does have potential implications for any publisher which needs to engage with this community as its source, reviewer, editor and purchaser of content.
So Elsevier’s announcement earlier this week that it has now withdrawn its support for the Research Work Act is a significant gesture and one that suggests it does recognise the level of anger amongst its core audience. It will be interesting to see whether this is followed by similar withdrawals of support for other legislation and whether the boycott will fizzle out, or whether the viral power of social media has given it a momentum which can only gather pace.
David Thew is Director, Publisher & Content Provider Recruitment at TFPL ([email protected]; +44 (0) 20m 7332 6076)