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Academics line up to boycott world’s biggest journal publisher

Dr Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, has responded to claims that the publisher charges too much for…

Academics say they are tired of the exortionate practices of Elsevier, a giant of journal publishing. Flickr/diylibrarian
Dr Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, has responded to claims that the publisher charges too much for access to content, and is trying to keep research out of the public domain. When this article was originally published, she was unavailable for comment. Her subsequent reply is appended, in full, below.

Dozens of Australian academics have joined a growing boycott of Elsevier, one of the world’s leading publishers of academic journals, over the behemoth’s “extortionate efforts to extract money” from people who wish to access their taxpayer-funded research.

At least 97 academics from across the country have signed their names to a boycott of the publisher, which owns more than 2,000 titles. In 2010, the company made a profit of £724m on revenues of £2bn, for an operating profit margin of 36%.

So far almost 6,000 researchers across the world have pledged to withdraw the fruits of their research from Elsevier journals.

Academics are typically required to pay journals an “article processing fee” to cover the cost of the peer-review and editing process. They must also sign over the copyright to the published work.

For their part, journals then charge up to $A42 per piece for access to the work online. Libraries that subscribe to one journal usually have to pay vastly inflated amounts for bundled services, said Dr Danny Kingsley, the Australian National University’s manager of scholarly communications and e-publishing. Dr Kingsley also coordinates the university’s new Digital Collections database, a free online repository of academic research.

“The problem in Australia is that the research councils - the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council - award funding to academics who publish their work in the journals that are judged under a metrics system to have the most impact,” Dr Kingsley said.

“So if academics boycott those journals, it could really hurt their careers. It’s easier to give in to their extortionate efforts to extract money than to join a boycott.”

In recent months, Elsevier has placed its weight behind a bill in the US - the Research Works Act - that aims to make it illegal to force researchers to make their work publicly available.

Dr Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, was not available to comment today. But last week she defended the publisher by saying that “over the past 10 years, our prices have been in the lowest quartile in the publishing industry.

“Last year our prices were lower than our competitors'. I’m not sure why we are the focus of this boycott, but I’m very concerned about one dissatisfied scientist, and I’m concerned about 2,000.”

The big publishers say that their contribution, from peer review through to distribution and database maintenance, is costly - but adds value, which can be seen in the published article and the benefit it brings for the author.

Dr Gavin Moodie, the principal policy advisor at RMIT University, signed his name to the boycott to register his objection to Elsevier’s attempts to keep information out of the public domain: “Elsevier is like the other big journals publishers in increasing its already high subscription prices and bundling journal subscriptions.

“I decided to get behind this protest because Elsevier also supports the US’s misleadingly titled Stop Online Piracy Act which would authorise the closure of whole sites which host a few copied works and the PROTECT IP Act which would close down web sites used incidentally to copy copyright works.”

Even worse, he said, was Elsevier’s support for the US Research Works Act, which would prohibit open access requirements for federally funded research, thus stopping or greatly curtailing digital research repositories open to the public.

“Of course other big copyright owners such as News Corporation support these attempts to roll back the online tide to protect their business founded on analogue principles, but in this case I think an effective tactic might be to start with a big copyright owner such as Elsevier which depends on scholars' goodwill to make its very big profits.

“By removing that goodwill I hope that Elsevier might change its ways and be an example to other big journals publishers and copyright owners.”

Dr Michael Young, a visiting fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the Australian National University, joined the protest after receiving a request from Elsevier to revise a 4,000-word paper for its International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier said it could not pay him more than its standard fee: $US100.

“What hack would spend a month or two researching and polishing an encyclopedia essay for such an insulting pittance?” he said. “And forget the academic kudos, for the ANU awards no points for such articles. In the light of … revelations about this company’s level of profits I’m seriously angry at the level of exploitation of academics.”

In some countries, government agencies have begun to mandate that articles produced by the researchers they fund be available free of charge within 12 months of publication.

In Australia, however, the Australian Research Council has introduced rules that merely “encourage” academics to add their work to open access databases. The other major funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council, is planning to go further. It will amend its rules later this year to mandate that the scholarly work it helps to fund be made freely available.

Dr Alicia Wise, from Elsevier, responds:

The first challenge in the petition is that our prices are too high. The cost of downloading an article has never been lower than it is today - on average one fifth of what it was just 10 years ago - and we are very mindful of continuing this trend. As well as driving down cost-per-use we have continued to invest in platforms which make it more efficient for researchers to discover and use our content and so the usage of those journals has grown by over 20% per year.

So why then the concern about our pricing? From a librarian’s perspective, there has been a long-growing gap between library budgets and the volume of articles published. The volume published continues to rise at above inflationary rates, fueled - not by publishers who are attentive to quality standards and have higher rejection rates now than ever, and who are also very mindful of annual price increases - but by increased global investment in research and development fueled by strong emerging economies.

The second challenge in the petition is that we force libraries to buy all of our content, or none at all. This is simply untrue. Libraries have flexible options. They can purchase individual articles, subscribe to individual titles, or subscribe to collections of journals. These collections come in different shapes and sizes and are often subject-focused or can include everything we publish.

Most libraries choose the largest collections we offer because these represent best value for money. To illustrate this, the usage of titles in a bundle is spread across all titles in that bundle: 60% of the usage is of titles the library previously subscribed to, and on average approximately 40% of researchers’ usage is of journal titles that the library previously had not subscribed to. This is a win for the libraries, the publishers, and the researchers.

Finally, the petition suggests that our real aim is to lock up access to content, and the evidence for this assertion is that we support various pieces of legislation in the US. No author or publisher comes to work in the morning to restrict access to their publications - we all want to be read as widely as possible, and for our works to be as influential as possible.

One of the challenges of being a publisher is figuring out ways to expand access and still cover the costs of producing high-quality journals and services. Elsevier is open to all business models for achieving this, and we actively use an array of open access business models, for example. These are models where the content is free to users because the costs have been paid in other ways, for example by fees to academic authors or their employers or funders.

We have nine open access journals, authors can make their article open access in over 1,100 of our subscription titles, and we have one of the industry’s most flexible posting policies for content ensuring that versions of articles can be shared in ways that are sustainable.

Putting an article online for free can have real economic consequences for the journal in which it was published, and can make the journal unsustainable. When a journal is unsustainable, its publisher loses but - more importantly - the research community that contributes to it, nurtures it, and relies on it loses too.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Thanks for a nice summary of the issues. I always try to publish in open access, but even with institutional affiliation, it will cost me 1045 GBP to publish. My last 2 papers for my PhD I will be finding from my (generous) student fund account. I am lucky in that the institution which I do my PhD through provides a healthy student support fund per year (around $3000). And provided when we get funding from NHMRC and ARC we can include costings for open access publication in our grant then this is all good.

  2. John Walker

    Company Director

    From a practical point of view one has to be either a student or employed at a University to have access to journal articles. An independent researcher is effectively shut out of the system. Further, bona fide researchers should be able to access publicly funded university libraries and academic journals on fair and reasonable terms by the payment of a modest fee. As a general principle knowledge should be treated as a global public good. The poor independent researcher should have the same access…

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  3. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I suggest that the current system that makes journal articles so expensive is due not so much to academics' self interest as to their inertia. They have been publishing in these journals since they were founded by their disciplinary associations, are shielded from the great increase in their cost by their institutions' serials subscriptions, and are finding it hard to change their ways.

    I suggest there is great potential in institutions' digital repositories and in disciplinary repositories such as the social science research network which are established in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the journals were established last century

    These digital repositories are open to the public, are free and many of their papers are pre prints of journal articles. That is why I particularly object to Elsevier's attempt to greatly restrict their expansion.

  4. Mike Taylor

    Programmer and Palaeontologist

    But the most pervasive error is the repeated description of the Cost Of Knowledge boycott as a petition. A petition is an attempt to persude someone to change their mind. But we (I am one of of the 6000+ signatories) are under no illusions that Elsevier is going to change. Signing the Cost Of Knowledge declaration is an act of defiance, not of abasement. It isn't a petition, it's a declaration of independence.

  5. Mike Taylor

    Programmer and Palaeontologist

    [For some reason, this site posted only the final paragraph of my comment. Let's try again.]

    Alice Wise's response on behalf of Elsevier is problematic in several respects.
    First, the claim that "the cost of downloading an article has never been lower than it is today -- on average one fifth of what it was just 10 years ago" is contradicted by the analysis of Björn Brembs that <a href="">Against own assertion, Elsevier doubled price for access</a…

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  6. Ben Toth

    logged in via Facebook

    Whether or not one accepts Alicia Wise's points the boycott reflects a much wider sense of dissatisfaction with Elsevier - including their support for the Research Works Act, corporate greed, attempts to undermine free access to developing countries, and support for a campaign to smear open access publishing.

  7. Flynn Hill

    PhD student

    Elsevier are only in it for the massive profits, but that's only natural for a publicly listed company. Their aims and ideals can never really be compatible with those of publicly-funded research. Just look at Elsevier's fake journals for big pharama scandal.

    Massive library budgets should be reduced and redirected to the maintenance of publicly-run journals.

  8. Joseph Ting

    logged in via Facebook

    I strongly support the public-spirited revolt by researchers in their pledge to boycott the academic journal publisher Elsevier. This aims to meaningfully register their protest of long-exorbitant and profitably-priced access to Elsevier journals.

    The price of advocacy for unrestricted access to findings from publicly funded research could be the prejudiced administrative handling and peer assessment of current and future manuscripts submitted to Elsevier journals by Cost of Knowledge signatories…

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    1. Simon Batterbury

      Associate Professor at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin is right.
      As the editor of an ERA listed online journal that it costs nothing to publish in, and which I produce as part of my job, and where articles are securely stored on a university server, I just can't see Elsevier's arguments about costs stacking up. Their model costs a lot - ours doesn't. Plus, academics have been inactive too long. We accept editorships and links to journals, accept ranking systems of journals, and publish in high cost outlets. This is going to have to change.