Researchers around the world have expressed concern and alarm about HR 3699, the Research Works Act, which endangers the public’s access to federally-funded research — to research funded by taxpayers’ own contributions. A number of scientists and mathematicians have signed an online pledge at the Cost of Knowledge saying that they will not publish or do any editorial work for Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals, which has declared its support for HR 3699.
A January 21st blog post by Timothy Gowers, a University of Cambridge mathematician who has won the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, voiced the views of many about Elsevier. “Why do we allow ourselves to be messed about to this extraordinary extent, when one would have thought that nothing would be easier than to do without them?” Gowers wrote. The online pledge surfaced after a few days and has been signed by over 2,400 biologists, social scientists and mathematicians.
H.R. 3699, The Research Works Act
The reasons for the boycott are far from academic.
The National Institutes of Health made all federally-funded research publications openly accessible in 2008. But HR 3699, which is sponsored by by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Committee member Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), proposes to limit access, based not on who has funded the research (the public or private sector), but by defining research as “private-sector work” based on the “intent” of an author, i.e., the researchers. The American Association of Publishers – self-described “private-sector research publishers” — support HR 3699, on the grounds of seeking “regulatory interference” about the research they publish.
Suppliers and “Middlemen” in Peer-Reviewed Publishing
Currently, scientists, mathematicians and others strive to publish in certain highly regarded peer-reviewed journals. They of course wish to make the results of their research known to the public. Getting an article published in a peer-reviewed journal involves a number of stages after submitting an article: The manuscript is sent to reviewers who are other researchers and who, very often, hold academic positions at universities. The journal’s editorial board makes the decision to publish the article or not. The reviewers are not paid by the journal.
However, to read the research in a journal, you have to have a subscription to it, or to belong to an institution that has one. Elsevier publishes over 2,000 scientific journals including two that are very prestigious, The Cell and The Lancet. Scientists must be familiar with and cite research published in such journals; for researchers who are junior faculty at universities or in post-doctoral positions, getting research published in these journals can make their careers.
The Chronicle of Higher Education sums up scientists’ concerns about Elsevier:
First there are the prices. Then the company bundles subscriptions to lesser journals together with valuable ones, forcing libraries to spend money to buy things they don’t want in order to get a few things they do want. And, most recently, Elsevier has supported a proposed federal law, the Research Works Act (HR 3699), that could prevent agencies like the National Institutes of Health from making all articles written by grant recipients freely available.
Sean M. Carroll, a prominent cosmologist and senior research associate at the California Institute of Technology, has signed the online pledge; he notes that Elsevier indeed charges “amazingly exorbitant prices to university libraries—and then makes the published papers very hard to access for anyone not at one of the universities.”
In calling for a boycott of Elsevier, researchers are more than aware that they are the suppliers of content to the journals. Without scientific research, you can’t really have a scientific journal.
Scientists are attempting to publish without the likes of Elsevier and other private-sector publishers at sites including F1000 research and the arXiv, at which physicists and mathematicians can post work in progress. Such “instant publishing” is still in its infancy as a valid, and validated, venue for scientific research.
But I commend these researchers’ intentions and efforts. I’m an academic at a small, chronically under-funded urban college. We don’t have access to a number of publications because the subscription costs are just too high. My college is not a research institution but the more research that is available via open access, the more our students — the more that anyone — can benefit.
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