8,200+ Strong, Researchers Band Together To Force Science Journals To Open Access

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Evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen made this t-shirt design in support of the Elsevier boycott.

Academic research is behind bars and an online boycott by 8,209 researchers (and counting) is seeking to set it free...well, more free than it has been.

The boycott targets Elsevier, the publisher of popular journals like Cell and The Lancet,  for its aggressive business practices, but opposition was electrified by Elsevier's backing of a Congressional bill titled the Research Works Act (RWA). Though lesser known than the other high-profile, privacy-related bills SOPA and PIPA, the act was slated to reverse the Open Access Policy enacted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 that granted the public free access to any article derived from NIH-funded research.

Now, only a month after SOPA and PIPA were defeated thanks to the wave of online protests, the boycotting researchers can chalk up their first win: Elsevier has withdrawn its support of the RWA, although the company downplayed the role of the boycott in its decision, and the oversight committee killed it right away.

But the fight for open access is just getting started.

Seem dramatic? Well, here's a little test. Go to any of the top academic journals in the world and try to read an article. The full article, mind you...not just the abstract or the first few paragraphs. Hit a paywall? Try an article written 20 or 30 years ago in an obscure journal. Just look up something on PubMed then head to JSTOR where a vast archive of journals have been digitized for reference. Denied? Not interested in paying $40 to the publisher to rent the article for a few days or purchase it for hundreds of dollars either?

You've just logged one of the over 150 million failed attempts per year to access an article on JSTOR. Now consider the fact that the majority of scientific articles in the U.S., for example, has been funded by government-funded agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, NIH, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, NASA, and so on.

So while taxpayer money has fueled this research, publishers charge anyone who wants to actually see the results for themselves, including the authors of the articles.

Paying a high price for academic journals isn't anything new, but the events that unfolded surrounding the RWA was the straw that broke the camel's back. It began last December when the RWA was submitted to Congress. About a month later, Timothy Gowers, a mathematics professor at Cambridge University, posted rather innocently to his primarily mathematics-interested audience his particular problems with Elsevier, citing exorbitant prices and forcing libraries to purchase journal bundles rather than individual titles. But clearly, it was Elsevier's support of the RWA that was his call to action. Two days later, he launched the boycott of Elsevier at thecostofknowledge.com, calling upon his fellow academics to refuse to work with the publisher in any capacity.

Seemingly right out of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, researchers started taking a stand in droves. And the boycott of Elsevier continues on, though with less gusto now that the RWA is dead.

It's important to point out though that the boycott is not aimed at forcing Elsevier to make the journals free, but protesting the way it does its business and the fact that it has profits four times larger than related publishers. The Statement of Purpose for the protest indicates that the specific issues that researchers have with Elsevier varies, but "...what all the signatories do agree on is that Elsevier is an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the current system of commercial publication of mathematics journals."

The advantages of open access to researchers have been known for some time, but its popularity has struggled.

It's clear that all forms of print media, including newspapers, magazines, and books, are in a crisis in the digital era (remember Borders closing?).

The modern accepted notion that information should be free has crippled publishers and many simply waited too long to evolve into new pay models. When academic journals went digital, they locked up access behind paywalls or tried to sell individual articles at ridiculous prices.

Academic research is the definition of premium, timely content and prices reflected an incredibly small customer base (scientific researchers around the globe) who desperately needed the content as soon as humanly possible. Hence, prices were set high enough that libraries with budgets remained the primary customers, until of course library budgets got slashed, but academics vying for tenure, grants, relevance, or prestige continued to publish in these same journals. After all, where else could they turn...that is, besides the Public Library of Science (PLoS) project?

In all fairness, some journals get it.

The Open Directory maintains a list of journals that switched from paywalls to open access or are experimenting with alternative models. Odds are very high that this list will continue to grow, but how fast? And more importantly, will the Elsevier boycott empower researchers to get on-board the open access paradigm, even if it meant having to reestablish themselves in an entirely new ecosystem of journals?

As the numbers of dissenting researchers continue to climb, calls for open access to research are translating into new legislation...and the expected opposition. Let's hope that some are thinking about breaking free from the journal model altogether and discovering creative, innovative ways to get their research findings out there, like e-books or apps that would make the research compelling and interactive.

Isn't it about time researchers took back control of their work?

If you are passionate about the issue of open access to research, you'll want to grab a cup of coffee and nestle in for this Research Without Borders video from Columbia University, which really captures the challenge of transition from the old publishing model to the new digital world:

[Media: Michael Eisen, Open Access, YouTube]

[Sources: ChronicleThe Cost of KnowledgeLibrary JournalNYTimes]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • klgarlock March 19, 2012 on 1:49 pm

    I’m glad for the opportunity to share some steps JSTOR is taking to expand access to content, but first I’d like to correct some information. The article claims that JSTOR has a rental model that charges $40 per article, and a purchase model that charges hundreds of dollars. It is important to understand that JSTOR is not a publisher, and we do not own the content on our platform. While we have a purchase model for individuals called the Publisher Sales Service, per article prices are set by our participating publishers, not JSTOR. The average cost of an article is $20.00 and no article in the service costs hundreds of dollars. JSTOR also does not have a rental model.

    JSTOR was founded as a solution for libraries and their patrons, and we have a commitment to preserve the content on JSTOR for the future. We are also working hard to find better access options for individuals. Many of our participating publishers share our mission to expand access to the content as broadly as possible. More than 40 of these publishers have joined our Register & Read program (http://about.jstor.org/rr), introduced on March 5. Register & Read enables anyone to register for a free account to read up to three articles at a time. There are currently more than 75 journals in this program, and we hope to expand it soon. You may also be aware that Register & Read follows our Early Journal Content initiative http://about.jstor.org/participate-jstor/individuals/early-journal-content, in which we made about 500,000 articles freely available in September 2011.

    More background information about JSTOR is available at: http://about.jstor.org/10things

    • externalmonologue klgarlock March 21, 2012 on 12:53 pm

      JSTOR is a member of the AAP which supports legislation that opposes open access policies because it cuts into their bottom line. But why should I subsidize your salary though taxes (albeit indirectly) klgarlock? Isn’t that anti-competitive? The truth is, businesses take what they can when they can. That is how one wins at life but don’t expect remorse or sympathy when things fall apart, as the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

  • ronewolf March 19, 2012 on 3:47 pm

    Yeah, its important to note that we the tax payer foot the bill for a lot of the current research. Its maddening to then have to pay for the results. But that’s, IMO, has little to do with the remarkable stability of the current publishing ecosystem in the face of huge pressure for change. On the other hand “impact factor” and its linkage to academic cred robustly support the current system.

    Pls comment on the the role of “impact factor” in keeping the current system in place. A evolved vision of impact factor and related systems is needed, no?

    BTW, thx to the EFF for pointing me here.

  • AJNania March 20, 2012 on 12:53 am

    I\’m neither a scientist, academic, or researcher but an ordinary citizen and taxpayer who reads widely.
    Without having a clue as to who or what JSTOR really is, I have in the past hit JSTOR\’s paywall so many times, I simply hit the back button as soon as I see where I\’ve been directed without further attempts to access the information I know is there and seek to read.
    It\’s a far more complete and insidious monopoly than any grasping Wall Street banker ever imagined.
    Take down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev, or whatever your name really is.
    Tony Nania

  • wisealic March 23, 2012 on 2:32 pm

    I’m also glad for the opportunity to share information about Elsevier’s access initiatives, but first I would also like to correct some information:

    • 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. As the effective price paid per journal accessed has decreased, the number of journals accessed has increased, and the usage of those journals has grown by over 20% per year.

    • Since the transition from print to electronic dissemination, Elsevier has worked with libraries to develop business models that reflect the varied information needs of individual institutions and the value delivered. We have evolved to offer a broad menu of purchasing options: from article level pay-per-view, title-by-title purchases, subject collections to the Freedom Collection. These many choices are described on our website at: http://www.info.sciverse.com/sciencedirect/buying/primary_license_options.

    • Readers may be interested to learn that the citation advantage you describe above for open access publications is not at all definitive. A number of other scientists have done similar studies and support a view that open access content is downloaded more, but is not actually cited more. It’s an issue that is worth continued study. A good overview of the current literature in this area is offered by Phil Davis at: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2010/01/07/citation-advantage-for-mandated-open-access-articles/

    Finally, there are of course an array of reasons that authors may choose to publish open access. Elsevier has an increasing and evolving number of open access choices available to our authors described at: http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/intro.cws_home/open_access. We are also committed to a vision of universal access to information and have an array of public access initiatives described at: http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/intro.cws_home/access_initiatives.

    With kind wishes,

    Alicia Wise