Boycotting Pricey Journals

January 28, 2012

I’ve written here occasionally about efforts to make more academic and research materials available on the Internet, most recently with the trial program to provide free access to part of the JStor archive of academic journals.  One of the reasons that these changes matter is that, as a rule, academic journals are quite expensive.  (If you have ever tried to access an article from one of these journals online, you will have seen a request for payment just to read a single article.  Charges of $25-30, or more, are not uncommon.)   From one perspective, this is hard  to justify.  Although there is obviously some fixed cost in running a journal, and in producing a printed version, the marginal cost of allowing an additional person to read it is effectively zero.

This is especially annoying because free access to information is a foundation of scientific and other academic inquiry, and because much of the value of a peer-reviewed journal is added at no cost to the publisher.  Scholars and scientists write and submit papers, of course; but they also serve as reviewers and members of editorial boards, frequently on a volunteer basis.  To add insult to injury, the publishers also engage in other questionable practices, such as only offering journals in pre-defined “bundles”, as if they were cable TV channels.

There is now a nascent protest movement among academics to boycott their part of this process.  The action was sparked by a blog post by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, and Fields Medal recipient.  A Web site,, has been set up, which enables members to make a public pledge not to do any or all of:

  • Submit articles for publication
  • Referee articles submitted by others
  • Perform editorial work

The initial action is being taken against the publisher Reed Elsevier, which publishes some of the highest-priced journals.  At this writing, 1335 researchers have signed up.  John Baez, a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside, has an overview post on his Azimuth blog.

This is an encouraging development.  For too long, some of these journal publishers have not only bitten the hand that feeds them, but charged the rest of the body for the privilege.  Or, as Adlai Stevenson once said, “Eggheads of the world, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your yolks.”

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