Academics blast publishers' methods

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TImothy Gowers. Photo: Abel Prize/Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
TImothy Gowers. Photo: Abel Prize/Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

An online protest, with more than 6200 supporters at press time, has pulled the scientific publishing industry, and particularly Dutch publisher Elsevier, into a tug of war with the writers whose work they publish.

“Elsevier—my part in its downfall,” a post on professor Timothy Gowers's blog, explains why the Cambridge University mathematics instructor is angry with the publisher.

His main beef is with Elsevier's subscription system, which bundles premium titles with lesser-quality ones. He said the publisher cuts off  journal access if libraries try to move outside of the packaged subscriptions.

The Fields Medal winner says he will not publish, provide peer review or perform editorial work for Elsevier. He has been joined by academics in the arts, sciences and mathematics fields who have taken à la carte and full-ticket approaches to the boycott.

Tom Reller, Elsevier's vice president, global corporate relations, told MM&M in an e-mail that Gowers has it wrong. “There are some areas and disciplines where there is concern about access,” he notes,  but adds that “the facts on which the petition is based… are not correct.”

Subscription fees are just part of the anger directed at Elsevier. “It's been 10, 15 years of people feeling they are not getting value from the publishers,” says Brian Cody, co-founder of the journal publishing site, Scholastica.

Cody says that with few exceptions, the work involved in putting these journals out is not done by Elsevier but by academic institutions which provide the content, which Elsevier packages and sells back to universities.

Publishers do have their supporters. The New England Journal of Medicine's editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Drazen, wrote in The New York Times that there is “value added by our staff editors, statisticians and graphic designers, among others.”

Cody dismisses these arguments. “Thirty years ago that was a serious value-added. That value is rapidly [dwindling] down to zero.”
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