Thousands of Scientists Vow to Boycott Elsevier to Protest Journal Prices

A movement to boycott scientific publishing giant Elsevier because of the high price of its journals is rapidly gathering steam. Nine days after it started, more than 2600 scientists—including several Fields medalists—have signed a petition at in which they pledge not to publish papers in Elsevier's journals, nor referee other researchers' studies, or do other types of editorial work for the company.

The petition, which has created a buzz on researchers' blogs and Twitter, isn't just an attack on Elsevier, its organizers say, but also an attempt to show the scientific community that it can help change the publishing business themselves to increase access to their studies.

The Cost of Knowledge was initiated by Fields medalist and blogger Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who says he has been boycotting Elsevier himself for many years. While he was writing a lengthy blog post on Elsevier's practices on 21 January, he initially thought he'd simply make that policy public. "Only while I was writing did it occur to me that it would be good to have a place where everybody who wanted to could make a similar declaration, so I mentioned that," he says. Tyler Neylon, a blogger and Ph.D. student in math at New York University took Gowers's cue and created the Web site 2 days later.

Many scientists and librarians consider Amsterdam-based Elsevier, which publishes over 2500 journals in all fields of science, one of the villains in the scientific publishing industry; its journals can cost up to $20,000 a year, while the company's profit margin in 2010 was 36%, according to an annual report. The petition mentions three main gripes: the "exorbitantly high prices" for the journals, the fact that many are sold as part of 'bundles' that include titles that libraries don't care for, and Elsevier's support of measures such as the Research Works Act, a controversial bill that would undo the National Institutes of Health's "public access" policy.

A spokesperson for Elsevier declined to answer questions, but the company sent ScienceInsider a written statement yesterday saying that its price increases "have been among the industry's lowest for the past ten years," and that Elsevier has made several other efforts to increase access to its information, such as the introduction of optional packages and a large contribution to the PubMed Central database. "We respect the freedom of authors to make their own decisions," the statement says. "We hope the ones who sign the boycott reconsider their position however, and we are keen to engage to discuss their concerns."

Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of academic and research libraries based in Washington, D.C., says she's "surprised and pleased" to see the scientific community organize itself so quickly. "The scientists realize their work should be published, not locked, and that they are behind the steering wheel," says Joseph.

Although the petition singles out Elsevier, both Gowers and Joseph emphasize that other big publishers—such as Springer and Wiley - apply similar business models. The focus is on Elsevier mainly due to its strong support to the Research Works Act, says Gowers. Joseph says that Springer has taken several steps to ensure that its copyright practices are more favorable to authors and end-users in general.

Gowers says he's considering further steps if support for the petition keeps growing, such as approaching the publisher directly. (One commenter on his blog also suggested urging members of journals' editorial boards to resign.) "But we have not decided on this yet. Timing is crucial," says Gowers. "Doing this too early could mean we have not gained sufficient pressure, too late could mean we have lost our momentum."

One scientist who strongly supports the boycott is Jonathan Eisen, a microbial genomicist at the University of California, Davis, and the Academic Editor-in-Chief of PLoS Biology, an open access journal. On Tuesday, Eisen urged readers of his blog to go one step further, by no longer paying attention to research published by Elsevier. "In essence, ignore them - consider them dead - make them invisible," he wrote. But after readers protested that no paper should be ignored just because of where it's published, Eisen quickly retracted the entire post, which he said had been written "at midnight, with a cat on my lap." "The response to my post helped make me realize that the semi-sarcastic attempted tone was not coming through correctly," Eisen writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.

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