The scientist revolt against academic journal publishing

It seems that the scientists are getting fed up with the whole system of academic journal publishing.  A correspondent writes, drawing my attention to a rather wonderful story from the Guardian, back in April.  The story is long, and full of interesting detail.

Academic spring: how an angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution

Alok Jha reports on how a Cambridge mathematician’s protest has led to demands for open access to scientific knowledge

It began with a frustrated blogpost by a distinguished mathematician. Tim Gowers and his colleagues had been grumbling among themselves for several years about the rising costs of academic journals.

They, like many other academics, were upset that the work produced by their peers, and funded largely by taxpayers, sat behind the paywalls of private publishing houses that charged UK universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year for the privilege of access.

There had been talk last year that a major scientific body might come out in public to highlight the problem and rally scientists to speak out against the publishing companies, but nothing was happening fast.

So, in January this year, Gowers wrote an article on his blog declaring that he would henceforth decline to submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals in the world.

He was not expecting what happened next. Thousands of people read the post and hundreds left supportive comments. Within a day, one of his readers had set up a website, The Cost of Knowledge, which allowed academics to register their protest against Elsevier.

The site now has almost 9,000 signatories, all of whom have committed themselves to refuse to either peer review, submit to or undertake editorial work for Elsevier journals. “I wasn’t expecting it to make such a splash,” says Gowers. “At first I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up.”

Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University and winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, had hit a nerve with academics who were increasingly fed up with the stranglehold that a few publishing companies have gained over the publication and distribution of the world’s scientific research.

The current publishing model for science is broken, argue an ever-increasing number of supporters of open access publishing, a model whereby all scientific research funded by taxpayers would be made available on the web for free.

Expensive paywalls not only waste university funds, they say, but slow down future scientific discovery and put up barriers for interested members of the public, politicians and patients’ groups who need access to primary research in order to exercise their democratic rights.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London, says that scientists need to come to a new arrangement with publishers fit for the online age and that “for a long time, we’ve been taken for a ride and it’s got ridiculous”.

Academic publishers charge UK universities about £200m a year to access scientific journals, almost a tenth of the £2.2bn distributed to them by the government, via the funding councils, for the basic running costs of university research.

Despite the recession, these charges helped academic publishers operate with profit margins of 35% or more , while getting their raw materials and the work of thousands of taxpayer- and charity-funded scientists free.

The big three publishing houses – Elsevier, Springer and Wiley – own most of the world’s more than 20,000 academic journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published. And, even as library budgets over the past few years in the UK and North America have been flat or declining, journal prices have been rising by 5-7% a year or more.

A standalone subscription to one of Elsevier’s most expensive journals, Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, costs more than €18,000 (£15,000) a year. Most universities buy bundles of journals, however, so they can soon rack up bills of more than £1m each to access the journals their academics request.

It is easy for most research scientists to remain oblivious to the high cost of journal subscriptions, because they are not usually the ones having to negotiate with publishers, says Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

As an active researcher, he had easy access to all the papers he wanted and only became aware of the costs involved, he says, when he arrived at the trust and tried to read a paper that had been produced as a result of a research grant from the charity, only to be faced with an article charge of £25. “Not surprisingly, I felt somewhat resentful about it,” he says.

This is excellent news.  The emperor has no clothes; and the fact is now becoming public knowledge.  And where the scientists lead, the humanities will follow.

3 Responses to “The scientist revolt against academic journal publishing”


  1. ikokki

    Generally on academic publishing there two types of journals. One is those published and maintained by science societies that tend to charge the authors but tend to offer free access after a relatively short time such PE&RS where if you want to publish a color image you need to pay $1000 but all articles more than 2 years old are free. IEEE Transactions in Geoscience and Remote Sensing charges several hundred dollars to the authors for up to 8 pages plus more for extra pages and images, but articles over 3 year old are free. The other is from commercial publishers that don’t charge the authors but charge the readers. These articles however do not go free at least before the expiration of copyright. Also if the author includes the diagram from one of his publications in a book he or she is writing he must pay royalties to the commercial publisher since publishing includes a surrender of copyright to the publishing house. The third option that has emerged over the last 10 years is open access journals. Although PLOS exists long enough and is by now established, this is not the case with several of the newer journals. Furthermore they can be prone to further problems: the new Swiss based magazine Remote Sensing charges the authors 500 CHF per article published, will publish your article quickly but will not necessarily take into account the comments of the peer reviewers leading to questions as to what are their ulterior aims and several comments from our professors that if you only publish in that journal you might have trouble finding a job due to lack of academic standards.

    The Guardian article you mention caused more of a stir than the set up of the new journal: it also led to a new EU directive that from now on journal articles where the research was funded from EU funds must become open access after a number of years. While not as good as forcing them to be open access from the beginning it is certainly much better than me not having access to 20 year old articles because my University library only subscribes to the part published after 2000. Like most EU directives it is a move in the right direction but not quite there since going all the way would upset the sensitivities of national governments and their publisher lobbies

  2. Attila

    Elsevier single article: 31.50USD
    Amazon complete magazine: 8.95USD
    Google search for subject, then finding it in Korea: 0USD

  3. Roger Pearse

    Very much to the point!

    Greedy swine.