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Elsevier Publishing Boycott Gathers Steam Among Academics (chronicle.com)
190 points by ilamont on Jan 31, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

Unfortunately the boycott is not focused on the real issue. The problem is not that the journals cost too much, but that they cost anything at all. Keeping the electronic articles behind a paygate prevents easy linking, organizing, and discussing them on the web. The ACM is as guilty of this as Elsevier.

Open access or nothing.

I don't think it's accurate to group in ACM and IEEE with Elsevier. Taking from something I said last week, the ACM and IEEE are professional organizations. Their main purpose is to represent the interests of the community of professionals in computing. If they stop charging for articles, they can still exist as an organization. Their members just need to elevate the issue to the point that the larger organization changes its policy.

Elsevier, on the other hand, will cease to exist if they stop charging. Their main purpose - their business model - is to charge for access to their journals. This business model is no longer necessary, and these companies will eventually die.

A world where knowledge is locked behind several $200/year paywalls is better than a world where knowledge is locked behind a greater number of $X,000/year paywalls. But it is not nearly as desirable as the kind of world we could have if everybody could link to, index, share, and discuss academic articles on the open web.

I agree with that. But you're only looking at them in terms of the price of the paywalls. That misses the point that the ACM and IEEE are organizations that the members can convince to do otherwise. That is not true with Elsevier.

Agreed entirely. Personally, I agree strongly with USENIX, which makes all their work publically available, and which requires only a simple grant of permission from authors, not a copyright assignment.

Two thoughts on 'this does not go far enough':

(1) It is a step in the right direction, and it's a step that is small enough for more people to take. Why does thecostofknowledge.com have over 2000 names after a week, while research without walls has under 500 after several months?


I think the difference is that thecost is a focused effort that asks less from researchers. Perhaps this would / will be easier when there are more well-regarded journals using an acceptable publishing standard.

(2) I had an interesting discussion with rms about the core problem with for-profit academic publishers. He made some excellent points arguing in favor of what he called "redistributable publishing" (which we could also call "free-to-copy publishing" ?) The argument is that some definitions of "open access" do not ensure the right of any individual to pass on articles, and, as we can see with software and other electronic data, this right can make a huge difference. So, from that perspective, some aspects of open access could be said to not go far enough.

I would love to see as much access and freedom as possible for any research produced by people who want it to be free. I think the best way to do this involves a bit of understanding and pacing for those whose careers depend on how they handle this move.

The (financial) cost is not a side issue. With Elsevier bundling different journals together, the outrageous charges really hurt the libraries. The last time I recommended my library two books to purchase, they asked me to choose one since their budget was limited and the books seemed to be on similar topics and available via interlibray loan.

Being a scientist myself, I am in favor of open access, but I also think that affordable access is the next best thing. I am not compromising on this, if a publishing house that published low cost journals supported RWA, I would boycott them, too. There is no reason to be militant, though. Once open access becomes standard, people will demand it more easily. Note that one reason for Gowers's public declaration was to make this "socially acceptable". Unfortunately, it is not yet so.

Perhaps the whole landscape can be changed in one move, and we should shoot for the stars, but this has to be done by the scientists, and generally speaking they are busy doing science. An easier goal is much more realistic.

This being said, I would also like to add that I think there is an opportunity here for a startup. Just like PG et al's Viaweb, perhaps someone can come up with a store that allows a board of directors to leave a journal and setup shop easily?

Unfortunately I don't have access to an academic library since I graduated and went into industry. Even if you get the cost for libraries down to a reasonable amount, you are limiting access to scientific knowledge to <1% of the world's inhabitants. I hear that JSTOR is affordable, but they won't even sell individual subscriptions.

That's bullshit.

Also, as I mentioned elsewhere, academics in Biology and Machine Learning have revolted against pay journals and made their own authoritative, high-quality open access journals. The model has been proved. The path has been cleared. Now all you have to do is walk it.

> "but this has to be done by the scientists, and generally speaking they are busy doing science."

God forbid reshaping the scientific process to make use of the singular most important technology of the last 50 years take any time away from some scientist's work - which is mostly conservative, incremental and only useful for advancing his tenure application, anyways.

perhaps someone can come up with a store that allows a board of directors to leave a journal and setup shop easily?



Thanks for the links, I will look at them in more detail asap. scholasticahq seems to be what I have in mind, and I really hope it really is!

Cheaper access is good, open access is even better. Winning this fight is worthwhile on it's own and it brings open access closer.

There is a big qualitative difference between open access and cheap access when it comes to discussing, sharing, and spreading articles with the existing web infrastructure. We shouldn't forget this point. It should be included in every discussion of how paid journals break the web of knowledge and slow the advancement of the human species.

And we're not even talking yet about the wealth of legacy articles locked behind paygates. Someone, or some legislation, needs to set them free.

Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

In this case the "perfect" and the "good" are an order of magnitude different in the utility they will provide for society.

And they are not an order of magnitude different in difficulty. Witness the success of PLoS and the Journal of Machine Learning and (to some extent) arXiv. The journals coordinate peer review and provide aggregation; now that we have the internet, there are better, much cheaper ways to do it.

Is there any reason to believe that this is the case?

I'm a member of the ACM and the IEEE, and a lot of other people are; it doesn't seem to me that the modest dues are significantly hindering progress in the field. If, due to some unexplained fortune, the ACM and IEEE were to drop their paywalls tomorrow, and grant free access to all, how much would really change?

I think a lot of scientists see this boycott as a beginning of that process. But even with open access, the scholarly community needs to find a way to recognize worthwhile research that is at least as effective as the current peer review system. Related to a link I gave in another comment, here's a proposal by John Baez for independent "referee boards" as a layer on top of free servers like arXiv.org:


There are prestigious open access journals in several fields, Machine Learning and Biology come to mind, that have solved this problem. There is no excuse to restrict access in a world with PLoS and the Journal of Machine Learning.

If no money is changing hands; who's gonna edit, typeset and print them? Who is gonna manage mail, comments from readers and so on? Pimple-faced volunteering undergrads?

I think desire to have everything free is a fantasy of the open source community. Not everything can be run like open source software project. Sometimes people need to get paid.

If you look at the list of names, those are largely math and computer science academics - the very people who produce such papers and articles.

I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how academic journals are structured and managed. The editing, typesetting, handling of communications and such are all done by the academics themselves. And those academics are not paid by the journals.

In most academic publications, the editing, typesetting, managing mail, etc is done by the volunteers or the papers authors. Pretty much all journals are going online only so there's no need to print anything.

In short the publishing houses do sod all, and get paid a lot of money for doing sod all.

...who's gonna edit,

The editors, most of whom are minimally paid and do it for prestige. I.e., the same people who currently do it.

...who's gonna edit,

Unpaid referees/editors, the same people who currently do it.


Authors, the same people who currently do it:


...and print them?

Readers, the same people who currently do it. Or are you imagining that there is some pressing need for physical journals to be printed and delivered to libraries?

It's true that sometimes people need to get paid. The point of the boycot is that in fields like Mathematics these people already work for free.

The only thing Elsevier does is archival and distribution. Editing and typesetting is done by the authors themselves, who provide camera-ready copies. I do not believe the publishers ever get involved in managing mail. The reviewing of paper is done for free by academics. It is coordinated by an academic on the editoral board of the paper. Even these editors mostly work for free or for some small compensation.

While Elsevier do provide some service (archival and distribution), their service is in absolutely no relation to the cost. The difficult parts of the business are already done by unpaid volunteers.

One would hope a philanthropic organization (e.g., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) would step in and help support an open system. If the vast majority of labor is already pro bono, the money could be spent setting up an infrastructure.

My university actually requires that I publish my dissertation through a particular electronic publishing agency (UMI/ProQuest), who would like to put it behind a paywall. I have to pay an additional $95 fee to make my dissertation "Open Access". (Of course, I can and will put it up on my own site, but that doesn't stop the publishing organization from charging people for access to their copy.)

This is good news. As an undergrad at a liberal arts college (and a community college transfer) I'm painfully aware of how much information is locked away behind the Elsevier pay wall. In my case, I wanted to do an independent study project looking at citation analysis in early molecular phylogenetics, but so many of the relevant papers are locked away that I just gave up.

This is the second time that Elsevier et al. have tried to kill PubMed Central. I hope that this is a turning point in the OA movement.

Elsevier's response:

"What publishers charge for is the distribution system. We identify emerging areas of research and support them by establishing journals. We pay editors who build a distinguished brand that is set apart from 27,000 other journals. We identify peer reviewers.

And we invest a lot in infrastructure, the tags and metadata attached to each article that makes it discoverable by other researchers through search engines, and that links papers together through citations and subject matter. All of that has changed the way research is done today and makes it more efficient. That's the added value that we bring.


The blog post by Gowers that seems to have started much of the current activity is here:


There's been a lot of discussion of this on science blogs lately, and I do think the momentum is picking up (though it's easier for us physicists than it is for people in biology and medicine). But while Elsevier really does seem to be worse than most academic publishers, the whole system needs to evolve. One proposal that I like is John Baez's idea of independent "referee boards", described here:


According to this article, http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Gets-to-See-Published/13040... , Darrell Issa is a co-sponsor. He was one of the few that were very vocal against SOPA so why is is sponsoring this?

I don't agree with his support for the RWA, but, it could be construed as consistent with his opposition to SOPA from an anti-government perspective: keep regulations low, keep the government out of the internet (SOPA) and the private publishing business.

Of course, given that the RWA is really trying to keep a system that charges the public twice for research they've already paid... but anyhow, that's a rationale.

A different set of donors to his campaign?

I'm a strong supporter of academic Open Access whenever possible, so it should be no surprise to anyone that I rather like this. To be completely honest, I had expected this to go like many protests and boycotts do and to have minimal impact. I'm glad it appears I'm going to be wrong about that.

I couldn't agree with this more.

Knowledge has an incredibly large impact on the possibility of the betterment of human life, be it individually or socially. It is better for everyone if knowledge is more widely available, those who run businesses involved with its distribution included.

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