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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.