Journal boycott gaining steam at UW-Madison

Feb. 21, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

They are mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.

That describes an emerging response from more than 6,000 scientists to Elsevier, publisher of more than 2,500 scientific journals, including Cell and The Lancet. As the largest journal publisher in the world, Elsevier is able to command hefty subscription fees at university libraries.

But almost all of the research that gets written up in these journals was originally funded by the public, and usually, scientists are not only authors, but also unpaid reviewers of articles submitted by colleagues. And yet the privilege of reading those articles often carries a high cost to institutional libraries.

Journal subscription costs are a continual concern at academic libraries, but the new push is not coming from Elsevier 's customers at libraries, but from its suppliers -- scientists around the world who write, edit and referee those journals.

The boycott began with a Jan. 21 blog post by Timothy Gowers, a British mathematician who channeled his concern about Elsevier's practices and prices and sparked an international boycott that has gained more than 6,000 signatories, including dozens from UW-Madison. To date, mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists are among the most common signers. 

Fairness and economics are central to the boycott, says Karl Broman, a statistician and professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health. “The main issue is that scientists want their papers to be read and available, and not just to scientists at well-funded universities. We are spending, collectively, a good amount of money that goes toward profit for these journal companies, and that could be redirected.”

In signing the boycott, Broman pledged not to publish or referee for Elsevier journals. He favors open-access journals like the PLoS (Public Library of Science), which are free to readers but funded by fees paid by article authors.

The National Institutes of Health now requires that research it funds be publicly available on one year after original publication. Elsevier 's support for the Research Works Act, which would withdraw that open-access requirement, is another motivation for the boycott.

“Elsevier has been vocal about its support for the Research Works Act and that raised red flags,” says Julie Schneider, director of Ebling Library for the Health Sciences.

A number of large publishers oppose Research Works, Schneider says, and advocates of open access favor the Federal Research Public Access Act,  “which would expand the NIH public-access policy to the 10 federal agencies with more than $100-million in grants.”

In an open letter regarding journal access and policies, Elsevier said the cost of downloading articles has never been lower and noted that scientists can sponsor open access to their articles at more than 1,100 titles.

Librarians are not part of the boycott struggle, Schneider says, but are “sitting on the sidelines and cheering.” Librarians have long bemoaned the steady rise in journal costs. Ebling Library spends about one-third of its budget -- about $1-million a year -- for subscriptions, she says. “For large publishers, including Elsevier, subscription prices are going up approximately 6 to 8 percent every year.”

Broader access to journals is in the public interest, Schneider says. “It can't help but advance knowledge when you make things available 24/7. So much of what we do at UW-Madison is interdisciplinary, international, so it makes sense to share as much with colleagues as possible. And taxpayers paid for these articles, and taxpayers should be able to read them.”

Library concerns about the cost of journals are nothing new, but now the activity is coming from the publisher's supply side, rather than the libraries demand side.

Overall, UW-Madison libraries spent a total of $6,541,217 on 64,421 serials (periodicals such as paper and electronic journals, magazines and newspapers from a vast array of publishers) during fiscal year 2010.

 “Philosophically, people see it as a positive thing to make these articles available, to make them easy to share with colleagues,” Schneider says. Through the NIH public-access requirement, “we are able to make thousands of journal articles available to the citizens of Wisconsin and the world,” Schneider adds.

Although the boycott originated with authors and reviewers, not librarians, “In general, libraries are supportive of any effort that brings attention to the problems we have in affording publications for our faculty, staff and students,” she adds.

At this point, Broman says scientists are in control. Although Elsevier is a giant among publishers,  “Authors have complete control over where they decide to send their papers. If one day, everybody decides not to send to Elsevier, but to open access journals instead, it would be done.”