Boycotting Pricey Journals, Revisited

February 4, 2012

About a week ago, I posted a note here about a nascent  boycott, by academics, of journals published by Reed Elsevier, touched off by a blog post by Tim Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, and organized through a Web site, thecostofknowledge.com.   Apparently the boycott effort has attracted some attention outside of the academic publishing world.  This week’s issue of The Economist has an article about it in its “Science and Technology” section.

The article points out, once again, that there is an inherent tensions between the natural interests of the academic authors and the commercial journal publishers.

Academics, who live in a culture which values the free and easy movement of information (and who edit and referee papers for nothing) have long been uncomfortable bedfellows with commercial publishing companies, which want to maximise profits by charging for access to that information, and who control many (although not all) of the most prestigious scientific journals.

There are really two principal reasons why a serious rift between the two groups has not developed before.  The first is that academic career progress is significantly dependent on published research, especially research published in the better-known and more prestigious journals.  The second is that, although there are Internet sites that publish academic articles and make them freely available, such as the arXiv site run by Cornell University, and the Public Library of Science, they do not yet always offer the same editorial quality as traditional journals.   Surely, though, both of these issues will diminish with time, if the academic authors work for change.  As The Economist says,

Commercial publishers have begun to experiment with open-access ideas, such as charging authors for publication rather than readers for reading. But if the boycott continues to grow, things could become more urgent. After all, publishers need academics more than academics need publishers.

And this boycott does seem to be growing.  When I posted  my original note, there were 1,335 signers of the boycott pledge.   The Economist cites more than 2,700 signatures, and the current count as I write this is 3,799.


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