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.