Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals, doesn’t have many friends of late. Earlier this year, a group of academics led by British mathematician Timothy Gowers started a petition to boycott the publisher—a petition which, as of April 10, included the names of over 9,200 researchers.
The stated impetus of the petition is Elsevier’s high prices and restricted distribution models. In order to understand the issue, we need to go back to 1996 and an initiative called “the big deal.” In a nutshell, the big deal uses economics of scale to bundle electronic access to a group (sometimes hundreds) of journals and sells this access to libraries and library consortia for a fixed fee over a certain period (say, three years). The benefits of this model are that instead of paying full price for each expensive journal subscription, libraries can pay one fee for lots of journals—in the end, coming out ahead. (From a consumer standpoint, think of stores like Sam’s Club. It’s kind of like that.)
The problem with this “big deal” is that journal costs increase each year. It’s the nature of the model: academic publishing has a weird kind of hold on its market. Academics need the information that academic publishers provide, and they (read as: their institutions) have little choice but to pay whatever the publisher charges in order to remain informed on the latest developments in the field. Traditionally, academic publishing has been a pretty easy deal: when budgets get tight, prices go up.
Unfortunately, in the last several years prices have been rising at practically unsustainable rates. And libraries have no choice but to continue subscribing. Couple this with budget cuts for many libraries, and the problem is clear: with fixed-rate journal subscriptions taking up much of their annual budget, libraries have fewer and fewer resources to spend on, well, anything else. And while the big deal is great for increased access, it’s less great in lean times—because librarians have fewer options in selectively cutting subscriptions.
And that brings us back to Elsevier, criticized for its high prices and for holding libraries over a barrel. The question becomes, “Why now?” If Elsevier’s practices and prices have been a problem for years, as Gowers’ boycott outlines, what makes 2012 the magic year for dumping them? (And, as this columnist would likely say, why stop at Elsevier?)
In part, the answer could be Open Access (OA). Although the concept of OA has been around since the late 1960s, in the last few years OA models are becoming increasingly popular and gaining a greater amount of legitimacy. Peter Suber, a leader of the OA movement, outlines the reasons and definition for OA in this 2004 statement.
The way OA works is that authors of scientific papers (i.e., researchers) pay to have an article published in OA journals. Initially, some academics viewed this in a similar way that publishers look at vanity presses: the author hadn’t earned the right to be published; they just paid enough money for it. But many researchers are very much on board with the idea.
However, legitimate OA journals don’t quite work that way. Authors do pay to have content published, but only after content has been peer reviewed—as it would be for any traditional print journal. Once articles qualify, authors are then asked to pay the OA fee (usually between about $1500 and $3000). The author fee goes toward the processing of the article—coordinating peer review, editorial, and other publishing functions. And who is receiving that fee? In many cases, they’re the same publishers who are also providing controversially expensive print journals. Academic publishers including Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and even Elsevier currently offer OA options for authors.
Although these publishers are joining the OA community, they are still defensive of their value and traditional role in academic discourse. And others also see the value that academic publishing provides, whether creating a platform for the spread of knowledge or providing financial support through subscription rates to the society that sponsors a particular journal.
But those voices are quickly being drowned by those calling them enemies of science. It is unlikely that academic publishers will be going away anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see the result of these vocal protests against the academic publishing machine.