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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.

27 Responses

  1. One hopes these boycotters can gather enough support to actually exterminate this journal from existence and wipe it off the face of the earth . . . as an inspiring victory which would spur the boycotters on to other such victories against other deserving targets one by one by one.

    • Elsevier is a publisher. It publishes hundreds of scientific journals.

      I’m kind of surprised and disappointed by the reaction here. I’m not sure readers understand what we’re up against. Imagine if you went to the library to check out a how to book on upholstery. The librarian tells you that all those kind of books are online now. Great, you say, I’ll just download the chapter on reupholstering my camelback sofa. So you go online and look it up and the browser takes you to the pdf file. Then you click on the pdf file and it says, “that will be $30.00 please”. And you think, Jeez, all I want is just this one chapter, not the whole book. But you still have to shell out $30.00. Well, technically, the information is still available and maybe it’s even worth it to you to buy the chapter. But let’s say you’re halfway through the project and you find that there’s a box cushion variation that is particular to your sofa. So you go back online to find the section on the box cushion in a different chapter. And once again, you get diverted to a page that asks you to cough up another $30.00.
      How long would it take before you either gave up on the upholstery project or had to reinvent the wheel? This is what scientists are up against. Corporations are emptying their labs and we’re out here on our own without corporate libraries and licenses to journal databases. What we have now are $30.00/paper fees. We *could* get a subscription but when we start a project, we do literature searches and downloads on many journals and we can’t subscribe to all of them. We also can’t buy 15 papers at $30 a pop.
      But it’s not enough to charge a lot for regular submissions. Now they want to put all of the government grant generated papers behind a pay wall too and you’ve already paid for that information when you put up the money for the grant. So, Elsevier is saying to your government, sure, pay for the research but we’re going to keep the information, which is what you’re really paying for, in our databases and we’re going to charge American scientists an arm and a leg to get access to it.

      IMHO, this is one of the most important bills in Congress right now and all I hear is crickets.

      • I think it’s a REALLY weird situation, Riverdaughter. Have you talked to the Reference Librarians about it? Or called the State Librarian? Libraries respond to patron complaints and requests. And if they aren’t Hearing from you (scientists) they might not think there is a call for it.

        I spent MANY years of my life specializing in serials acquisition so while I’m not a scientist, this subject does interest me from a problem solving perspective.

        It really might help to present the State Librarian with a petition signed by as many of your colleagues as possible.

      • If the US government really existed to help the USA and not the rentiers, whatever country the rentiers happen to live in, then one might make a case that it’s the duty of our intelligence services to crack those firewalls and make those papers available to US scientists. 😈

        • I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese intelligence services don’t do that sort of thing already, because their leaders still understand economic nationalism, not having been hypnotized by “free-market” bull$#!+.

  2. Sorry, riverdaughter, you’ve lost me on this one. Anyone can put up “Steve’s Biology Blog” and post their research results, but nobody would take him seriously.

    Scientific publishing is an extremely expensive business to operate. That paper you want is interesting only to a very, very few people (so the “bundling” that you find offensive because it contains journals that you don’t read, may contain journals that someone else reads). Scientific publishing companies have set up complex systems of peer review, editing, typesetting, and printing, so that scientists and academics have trusted venues for desseminating information and for receiving credit for that work (like tenure and internal promotion). So no, I don’t think that journals are priced exhorbitantly. If The American Mathematical Monthly sold as many copies as People, then I’d think differently.

    The reason that companies like Elsevier are interesting to you is that they have information you want. And you want it because of the way they publish. Other ways, cheaper ways, must be found eventually; but for right now, if you want a peer-reviewed article, this is how you’re going to have to get it.

    • Completely disagree with you. The bulk of these papers are in electronic format. The authors are not getting paid. The peer reviewers aren’t making a fortune on this and the number of people who read them is less than the ones that want to read them if only it weren’t for the $30/paper price tag.
      There are more than 6000 signers to thecostofknowledge pledge. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Do you know how many pharma researchers have been thrown out of work since 2007? Go to fiercepharma and check the layoff list. It’s astonishing. And we do not have the money to buy these papers. With corporations cutting back on the licenses it wont be long before elsevier will have priced itself out of the market. It needs a better business model.
      I actually look forward to the ascent of open source journals. I don’t know who you work for but you should try to get the input of the thousands and thousands of us who can’t access the research we need at a reasonable cost. It doesn’t sound like you know any of them.

      • What is a “reasonable cost”?

        • iTunes type pricing. Honestly? I don’t think a paper should cost more than $5. Even that’s kind of the top of my price range. How many papers do you typically download to start a project? I recently got sent about 15. 15 x $5 = $75. That’s still a lot of money but I be more willing to fork it out compared to $450.
          What’s really outrageous about merciless’ stupid little diatribe is that for $30.00, you don’t even get the whole issue of that journal. You get a single paper. And there are no discounts for the other papers in the issue. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of the journals that Elsevier has are pretty obscure. But there are quite a few chemistry and biology journals that have to be getting a lot of traffic. They’re not vanity journals. They’re popular for a reason.
          And then I look at something like Martha Stewart’s Living on the iPad. it’s something like $3.99/copy. It’s beautiful, it’s well designed, it’s electronic. She has to pay all of those people to write and edit for her and it has to be new fresh copy and she gets the money for it because it’s her magazine. And we send the journals files already in pdf format for which they will underpay someone to also create an HTML version, probably using some content creation software that Elsevier had customized by some asian programmers. How does that justify a $30 paper?

          • Although you don’t always get the pleasure of instantaneous response, have you thought about requesting reprints of the papers you want to read from the corresponding authors?

            Reprints are free.

          • For example, the corresponding author of

            ATP-Independent Control of Autotransporter Virulence Protein Transport via the Folding Properties of the Secreted Protein

            is Patricia L. Clark. Determining what her e-mail address is left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

          • Yes, there are workarounds. But when you have to spend extra time tracking down papers at a discount or free and the corporations can just eat as many as they want, that kind of creates a two tier research environment, doesn’t it? If you’re as rich as Croesus, you can afford everything, including the patent lawyer that will get you the patent first.
            It’s giving all of the advantages to the big companies and none to the little guys.
            Carolyn is really not thinking this through.

          • On an individual level, it may not be that bad. Elsevier shows the abstract, authors, their addresses, and marks the corresponding author for every paper. For each paper you want to read, you can either pay Elsevier $30 and download it, or you can point to the corresponding author icon, get his/her e-mail address, e-mail him/her and request a reprint or pdf file of the paper and pay nothing. In most cases, the delay in receipt is tolerable (a few hours to a few days). You read the ones that arrive quickly while you’re waiting for the others. You won’t be “putting out” the corresponding author by contacting him/her, and when it’s free you’ll also never suffer buyer’s remorse (that happens a LOT when you pay $30 a paper). Use the ATP paper you want to read as a test case.

            The larger issue, though, is whether it’s realistic to expect individual scientists to be able to perform peer-review-quality independent research, given the overall costs, of which access to the latest published research is but one part.

    • PLoS.

      Enough said.

    • Scientific publishing is an extremely expensive business to operate.

      How expensive is “extremely expensive”?

  3. Of course publishing online is not free. But this is just crazy to charge per article!

  4. Riverdaughter, if your question of why so little reaction is addressed to the political and scientific worlds, I don’t know. If it is addresssed to the readers of this blog (and this is one of the smaller threads I have seen so far) . . . . most of us are below or outside the working science level and don’t necessarily feel qualified to address this.

    This would be one of the particular cases highlighting the broader problem of piratical privatisation of publicly-paid-for public goods. Goverfunded research should be goverpublished at taxpayer expense. It could be very easily digitally warehoused under whatever subject headings it would take to find it easily and download it. Private parasite publishers should not even be in existence at all . . . stealing a living by publishing things they lifted not a finger to discover. Let them EARN their living by publishing PRIVATELY funded research.

    Or alternatively, and at worst, let the universities where this publicly funded research takes place publish it or make it digitally available for a small and affordable price the way that the Land Grant Universities make agriscience research available.

    This sort of thing could be addressed by the political party which some of us wish would arise. I can think of a good name for such a party. The Lower Class War and Justice Party. “The New Deal is back. And it wants revenge.”

    • To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why we aren’t goverpublishing NIH funded research already. Have you been to PubMed ? It’s fricking brilliant. There’s no reason that I can see why the government can’t link the citations to their own databases of papers.
      BTW, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to comment on this issue. You the taxpayer have already paid for the research. Shouldn’t you the taxpayer have access to the data without a 3rd party playing interference and collecting rent? Let’s say that tomorrow, you decide to sign up for a bio course on a whim and find out that you have talent in that area and want to read more. What would be a fair price for a paper?

      • Well . . . if the research was already paid for with our taxes, then an at-cost price to cover the cost of printing, storing, data maintainance, etc. would seem fair. Certainly no extra money going to third party profichiselers.

        • I don’t know anyone who goes to the library to look up and copy a paper from a hardcopy journal anymore. I guess if I HAD to do it, I could but it’s painful and since I already have to look up the reference online, it’s like switching to old technology afterwards, having to position the page on the printer just so, etc. Much easier to read the pdf file on my ipad in Notability where I can make annotations and highlights and stuff like a real paper without the pain of having to lug around real paper.
          Or if you must have real paper, just print it from the pdf file. In other words, the journal publishers are making this big deal about how they have to print and from what I can tell from the corporate library, that’s not the format they’re receiving journals in anymore.
          What I’m saying is that these journals could cost far, far less to print than the publishers are saying. And when it comes to obscure journals that only a handful of people read, ejournals are a no-brainer. Why would you EVER print a hardcopy of those?

  5. So, how many pieces of silver did Carolyn Maloney (Obamacrat NY) get?

    • I don’t know but I find it very disturbing that it apparently has never occurred to her that this bill would crush independent research in this country. And that’s a real problem because we’re all being forced to research independently. So, if she let’s Elsevier and ACS win this one, she is pretty much screwing American science. It’s already too expensive. This just solidifies the publishers’ grasp on information and makes it harder and more expensive to get. As Nakajima noted above, we will have no choice but to go to an open source model. PLoS was the result of the last boycott. The boycott organizers didn’t think that one was very successful back around 2000. But that was when most of us were still employed. We’re increasingly out of work now so the boycott may be very different this time.

    • I’ve been thinking that perhaps we should go after a Democrat congress member, work to vote them out as a warning to the rest of them. You know, act like a FDR Democrat or get out. She sounds like a good place to start. Are any of her constituents reading this?

      The rest of us could send letters or e-mail voicing our disappointment with her support of these bills.

  6. RD, one thing which unemployed scientists should not even consider is to make copies of journal articles available as torrents.

    For example, if you do make that trip to the library, it is possible to photograph every page of a journal rather quickly with a tiny point-and-shoot camera — it’s easier than photocopying. The results can be easily translated into a pdf file which could be shared with others on rapidshare or bittorrent sites.

    You COULD do that, but it would be wrong.

    So never, ever do that.

    I have provided this information simply to inform people of a practice which they must always avoid.

    • For example, if you do make that trip to the library, it is possible to photograph every page of a journal rather quickly with a tiny point-and-shoot camera — it’s easier than photocopying. The results can be easily translated into a pdf file which could be shared with others on rapidshare or bittorrent sites.

      Ah, yes, this is AKA the Chinese intelligences services approach.

      • Remember how the MBA suits told us that we could sell ideals after they sent the furnaces and punch presses to China?

        Wonder how that’s working out?

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