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Wednesday: Geeks vs Rentiers

This morning, Derek Lowe pointed to this post at Nature about the growing geek boycott against the Elsevier journals.  Elsevier is a scientific journal company based in Amsterdam that is pushing Congress to pass the Research Works Act.  The act would sequester scientific information that you the taxpayer have already paid for behind a paywall:

Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a winner of the Fields medal, mathematics’ highest honour, declared his boycott in a blog post on 21 January. He cited Elsevier’s high prices; the practice of bundling journals, which some see as forcing libraries to subscribe to journals they don’t want to get those that they do; and the company’s support for US legislation such as the Research Works Act (RWA), which would forbid government agencies from requiring that the results of research they fund be placed in public repositories. Elsevier is not the only publisher guilty of such practices, says Gowers, but it is the worst offender.

Since the protest began, more than 4,800 researchers from all fields have joined in; about 20% are mathematicians. After an initial burst of activity, the petition is now attracting around 200 new signatories each day. On 8 February, Gowers and 33 other mathematicians, including Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, released a follow-up statement detailing their objections to Elsevier’s practices.

Here’s the problem: Elsevier and other scientific journal publishers, like ACS, charge extremely high fees to download an electronic copy of their papers.  Since I’ve been unemployed, I haven’t been able to download a copy from Elsevier or ACS servers for less than $30.00/copy  (here’s an example of a paper I’d like to read but not for $31.50).  I hear this complaint from a lot of unemployed scientists.  They absolutely must keep on top of the literature or they’re unemployable but they can’t afford to shell out $30 for each paper they need to read.  That leaves them with few options the best of which is to go to a local university and use their science library.  But if you don’t live close to one, it’s a major headache.  Getting a subscription is doable but the high cost of a subscription usually limits us to only one and research rarely stays in one journal.

But it’s worse than that.  Researchers don’t get paid for their papers when they publish.  Plus, for research that has been paid for by government grants from the NIH, it’s outrageous that any publisher would have the right to keep that information behind a paywall.  That means that American researchers end up paying at greatly inflated prices for work that Americans have already paid for.

I hope the boycott makes some progress.  There are some open access journals out there although their reputation is not well established yet.  But we have to break the stranglehold publishers have on information or only the people who can afford to pay will have access and you know who that means.

Finally, we are really surprised that NY Rep. Carolyn Maloney is onboard with the RWA.  She should be much more concerned with the American researchers no longer employed by corporations and suddenly on their own with dwindling resources,  and less concerned with the rentiers who are trying to keep the data to themselves screaming, “mine! mine! mine!”  If you’ve never had to do research this way, you have absolutely no idea how hard it is.

For shame, Carolyn.

For those of you in research who would like to join the boycott, check out TheCostofKnowledge, which frames the issue like this:

1.)They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.

2.)In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.

3.)They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

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