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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Gareth Cook

Why scientists are boycotting a publisher

THE SCIENTIFIC community finds itself at the beginning of its own Arab Spring. At stake are values that all Americans hold dear: the free flow of information and the continued betterment of human life. Success is by no means guaranteed, but it’s an important protest movement in which Boston should play a special role.

The central character in this emerging drama may seem an unlikely villain: Elsevier, an Amsterdam-based publisher of scientific journals, including the prestigious titles Cell and Lancet, which give researchers a platform to share their most important advances.

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But Elsevier has settled on a business strategy of exploitation, aligning itself against the interests of the scientific community. Most of the intellectual work that goes into Elsevier’s journals is provided for free, by scientists whose salaries are largely paid for by taxpayers. Then Elsevier charges exorbitant rates for its journals, with many titles running in the thousands of dollars a year. This sharply curtails the sharing of results - the fuel of scientific discovery - and makes it prohibitively expensive for the public to read what appears in its pages. Yet for Elsevier, this looks like success: In 2010 Elsevier reported revenues of about $3.2 billion, of which a whopping 36 percent were profit.

Now Elsevier is supporting an odious bit of legislation known as the Research Works Act. Currently, the National Institutes of Health has a rule: If the American people pay for research, then they should be able to see the results without paying again. This is simple fairness. Yet the legislation would end that policy, further boosting Elsevier’s profits by locking important biomedical research, the stuff of life and death, behind paywalls.

There has been grumbling about Elsevier for years, but a British scientist recently started an international protest. Timothy Gowers, winner of the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of mathematics, wrote a blog post declaring that he would have nothing to do with Elsevier and invited others to join his boycott. A volunteer then set up a Web page - thecostofknowledge.com - to gather signatures. More than 4,600 scientists, including some at MIT and Harvard, have signed on.

If the American people pay for research, then they should be able to see the results without paying again.

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These scientists are brave because joining the boycott is not without some risk. The academic world places a great emphasis on publishing. Scientists can work for years to put together a single paper, and if it is taken by a prestigious journal, it can make a career. Publicly defying a big publisher means ruling out options. The editors of the journals, and their editorial boards, also tend to be powerful people in the community. Nobody wants to make enemies.

What is crucial to understand is that academic publishing is not a free market. Researchers send papers to journals for free, because their jobs depend on it. Senior scientists don’t charge journals to review potential articles, thereby helping the editors to identify the best work, because that is a part of being an academic. Libraries have to subscribe, because the researchers they serve cannot work without access to the scholarly record. Academic publishers thus have a captive work force and a captive audience. They can choose to make a decent profit, or they can choose to extract from the system as much money as they think they can get away with.

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“We are pouring a lot of money down the drain,’’ Gowers says. “If we didn’t do that, then that money could be used for science.’’

Elsevier is not the only academic publisher making unseemly profits, but it has led the way in taking unfair advantage. Elsevier’s rapaciousness was on display in 2009, for example, when it was forced to admit to publishing several sham “journals’’ paid for by pharmaceutical clients, filled with glowing descriptions of their work.

Elsevier has also enthusiastically pushed the Research Works Act on Capitol Hill, making generous contributions to one of the bill’s two sponsors. It has given New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney $41,050 in contributions since 2004, according to the nonprofit Maplight. (It gave the other co-sponsor, California Republican Darrell Issa, $5,000 over the same period.) The publishers of both Science and Nature, the two most influential scientific journals, have meanwhile publicly opposed the legislation. (Full disclosure: I edit a blog for Scientific American, which is owned by the Nature Publishing Group.) Academic publisher John Wiley & Sons opposes it. Another important publisher, Springer, released a statement which neither endorses nor opposes the legislation, and a company spokesperson refused to clarify its position.

The budding protest movement could benefit from a clear set of demands. One should be opposition to the Research Works Act. Another should be to insist on an end to publishers’ practice of cloaking contracts with libraries in confidentiality agreements, which hides the costs from public scrutiny.

The scientific community also clearly needs to work harder on building effective alternative models for sharing the results of their work. The nonprofit Public Library of Science publishes high-quality journals which are freely available to anyone, and there are other types of efforts underway. Or the editorial boards of overpriced journals can simply resign en masse to start up new, more reasonably priced journals. In 2006, the editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology, infuriated with the company’s behavior, did exactly that.

But what is most urgently needed now is the equivalent of a mass uprising in Tahrir Square. And that’s where the research community in the Boston area can play a role. Researchers should sign the boycott petition and encourage colleagues to sign. Those on an Elsevier editorial board should resign - and take fellow board members with them. This will not just send a message to Elsevier, but to an industry that needs to change.

More than two centuries ago, another group of Bostonians decided that they had had enough. They joined together in resistance, and it was the shot heard round the world.

Gareth Cook can be reached at g_cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.

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