The “Cost of Knowledge” – On the Elsevier boycott and the push for more open access

A visual as to why academics are boycotting the publisher Elsevier. © 2012 Giulia Forsythe; taken from

In the STEM fields, knowledge through research results is shared amongst academics and researchers by means of publications in research journals.  Some of the big name research journal publishers consist of Springer, Elsevier, Wiley, Science, Nature, etc.

In the last several months, the controversy over the “cost of knowledge” started to gain momentum; this can be seen most recently in the ongoing Elsevier boycott.  In January, Fields medalist Timothy Gowers wrote an article on his blog urging fellow mathematicians to boycott the publisher Elsevier; he also wrote how he had “contributed to their downfall”.  Why Elsesvier?  It turns out that even though other private publishing companies have had similar practices, Elsevier appears to be the worst offender.   Elsevier charges very high (way above normal) prices for journal access, and they somehow manage to get away with it (the fact that they are the largest scientific journal publisher may explain this).  It’s even more troublesome for libraries that try to get access to certain journals through Elsevier; they can only get access to journals by getting them in bundles, and most of these bundles have journals that these libraries don’t need.  This is set up in such a way that libraries can’t negotiate better deals with Elsevier since the publisher has no issue with cutting them off completely.  So why do the libraries have to use taxpayer dollars to pay very high fees to gain access to research results that were funded by taxpayer’s dollars to begin with?   Gowers (and many others) have been opposed to these practices for a while now; however, they recently decided to band together and boycott Elsevier.

In supporting and lobbying for bills like SOPA and PIPA, Elsevier appears to oppose open access of research.  As a graduate student, I’m very troubled by this idea.  What if open access sites like the arXiv were forced to shut down because publishers like Elsevier were “losing money” because people would rather get these articles for free instead of paying big bucks for them?  I’m indifferent about private publishers making money off of journals (although I wish everything was open access); however, when they become unreasonable like Elsevier, it would make sense that some people will get tired of it and start to oppose the publisher.  It turns out that’s exactly what thousands of academics have done already with Elsevier.  After Gowers made his blog post, he didn’t expect it to give rise to an “Academic spring” (as called by the Guardian) where roughly 9,500 academics supported his cause within a matter of months.  You can find out who these supporters are at The Cost of Knowledge website along with updates on the Elsevier boycott.

What can we learn from the Elsevier boycott?

  1. For starters, there is strength in numbers.  If there is enough of an uprising, the publisher will most likely take notice and revise their policies.  For instance, Elsevier originally supported SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act (RWA), but they stopped supporting the RWA due to the pressure they got from this group of academics.  As the number of boycott supporters grows, I believe we’ll see some more (policy) changes at Elsevier.
  2. There is a push for more open access of research results.  The age of the internet has made sharing information relatively simple, so why can’t there be more open access research sites like the arXiv?  For more on this topic, I’d recommend reading this Guardian article by Stephen Curry, one of the supporters of the Elsevier boycott.
  3. The exclusive control publishers have to distribute scholarly work is being questioned more and more.  In the Guardian article on “Academic Spring”, David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, says the following about the publisher’s exclusive right to distribute scholarly work:

We think that’s wrong and that’s not the most effective way of running scholarly communications.  To be made effective, scholarly information has to be made as widely available as possible. We’ve seen an increasing amount of evidence that shows that, if we move to an open-access world, there are benefits not just to the scientific process itself but also wider economic benefits.

I’m not sure how many of you have publications yet, but I would like to hear your opinions on this topic and about your experiences with the article submission process to journals (if you have any).  What is the cost of knowledge to you?

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