Durham academics boycott publishing giant Elsevier

by Charlie Gardiner-Hill

As eight Durham academics join an impassioned 10,000 strong boycott of Elsevier publications, the giant of the scholarly publishing industry accused of profiteering, Palatinate reports on why the academic community is taking a stand.

On 21st January, Professor Tim Gowers, the popular Cambridge mathematician and acclaimed winner of the 1998 Field’s Medal, posted on his blog, http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall, declaring that he was “not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but saying so publicly”.

He called the academic community to join him and so they did, en masse. The response was immediate and impressive. A website, www.thecostofknowledge.comwas set up within 24 hours and in just over a month 7,000 academics had not only joined the boycott but whipped up a frenzied storm of Twitter activity. So what is all the fuss about?

Researchers have long bemoaned the academic publishing industry and being the fiercely intelligent people you would expect, they have good reason. In order to obtain incredibly competitive funding which determines the personal fate of academics and the fate of whole research departments at universities, researchers need to be published in journals that are ranked according by “impact factor”.

The higher the impact of a journal, the more desirable it is to be published in. The research is then peer-reviewed in the journal by other academics and the resulting journal is sold to university libraries whose academics in turn use the research for their own work. This puts universities in the difficult position of being both the producer and the consumer, made more difficult still because the academics need to publish and the libraries need the journals in order to allow their departments to function. The highest impact journals – in fact almost all journals – are almost exclusively owned by PLC’s, with shareholders to report to.

So far, clear opportunity to exploit, but as the politicians urge us to remember big business is not always the enemy and besides this traditional model has been tried and tested over the ages. However, the academics submit their research for free. The academics peer-review for free. The publishers then have rights to this material and they do not give it away for free. They sell annual subscriptions to libraries, for astonishing amounts, which Elsevier argues covers the cost of their overheads.

Unfortunately their argument is not quite as logically sound as the academic community’s. According to Elsevier’s ‘Annual Reports and Financial Statements 2011’ their net profit rose by 16% in 2010-11 from €751m to €874m whilst the free services academics provide the publishers is estimated to cost £165m in the UK alone and £1.9bn worldwide.

Tim Gower’s initiative states on its website that ‘in the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential. Elsevier claims on its website that it “works in partnership with the communities we serve to advance scholarship and improve lives…expressed in our company’s Latin motto, Non Solus, ‘not alone’.”

However the boycott has forced change upon Elsevier. They are clearly alarmed by the boycott because not only did their Director of Corporate Communications, Paul Abrahams, decline to comment, but they have also used confidentiality agreements within their contracts to restrict the power of libraries and universities to speak out.

Cambridge University flat down declined to on the boycott or Elsevier, but they said this wasn’t because they didn’t want to but because they felt it would be inappropriate.

Others were more forthcoming: Debbie Shorley, a Durham alumni and Head Librarian at Imperial College London, is leading Research Libraries UK, a consortium of libraries including Durham University Library, in demanding that Elsevier reduce subscriptions by 15% and allow them to pay in Sterling.

This fight is on-going, but she said that ICL who spend well over £1m a year with Elsevier negotiated ‘a much improved deal this year’.  However due to contractual commitments to Elsevier she could not on the boycott, except that it is ‘an issue for academics’. An anonymous source from Durham University library revealed that they have just signed a five year contract with Elsevier and spend around £530,000 annually with the company. The source said “I don’t want to condemn Elsevier, they provide a good deal” as the “pricing works out at about £1 a download”, but admitted that other universities may not be so lucky.

It seems Elsevier have started providing better value for money but this may be too little, too late. Although the financial exploitation, by what Debbie Shorley called a “quasi-monopoly” of multi-billion dollar publishers (Elsevier is not alone), of researchers and libraries funded by public money in a time of austerity is shocking and has been the catalyst for this boycott, the consequences could be far more serious than a shift in pricing.

Since the boycott Elsevier has dropped its support for the Research Works Act in the United States. That same day, the bill’s political sponsors declared they would take no further action on the bill, stopping it dead. Funding organisations have responded similarly. The Wellcome Trust announced plans to withhold funding unless researchers made their publications freely available and the World Bank created their Open Knowledge Repository, for free-to-read articles.

Back in Durham and speaking to Professor Simon Ross, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and signature to the boycott – the moral question of whether it is right for information to be controlled for profit is paramount.

He “supports journals published by learned societies, which are controlled by the community, and whose profits are re-invested in community activities”. He is not alone, this sort of shift towards free publishing made increasingly possible by the internet would render Elsevier and others obsolete. It’s a worthy goal and certainly worthy of more of Durham’s attention. Professor Ross urges “anyone who has concerns about the role of commercial publishers should join the campaign, even if Elsevier is not a big presence in their area; this is a chance to stand up and be counted”.

Despite Elsevier’s heroic motto, one can’t help but think, amidst the growing sea of academic discontent, they must feel very alone.

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