An Academic Spring? [UPDATED]

A successful protest against Elsevier demonstrates that populist rebellions have a place within the information-sharing community

April 4, 2012

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On January 21, distinguished British mathematician Timothy Gowers posted to his blog his rationale for no longer submitting manuscripts, reviewing articles, or doing editorial work for journals published by Elsevier. Gowers faulted the corporation for high prices, bundling subscriptions in ways that made selection prohibitively expensive for libraries, and for supporting the Research Works Act (RWA), proposed legislation that would prohibit government agencies from requiring that publicly funded research be freely accessible within a year.

His message was simple, but measured: “I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behavior: They are a big business, and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do,” he argued. “The moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.”

In his post, Gowers wondered if a website could be created where other academics could signal their decision to no longer work with Elsevier’s more than 2,600 journals, such as the American Journal of Medicine and Acta Mathematica Scientia. Within a couple of days, Tyler Neylon—who has a PhD in applied mathematics from New York University and is a cofounder of Zillabyte, a big-data start-up—established Cost of Knowledge, a website where others could join the boycott by signing an online petition. And the names began to roll in: First dozens, then hundreds, and within a month thousands of signatories from around the world. By mid-May, more than 10,800 scholars had signed.

A cheeky Twitter protester, FakeElsevier, peppered the twitterverse with sarcastic humor and had gathered more than 2,000 followers before an Elsevier official tried to shut it down, making a trademark complaint that was later withdrawn.

In a letter signed by 34 mathematicians, the rationale for the boycott was explained more formally, stating that Elsevier was targeted because it “is an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the current system of commercial publication of mathematics journals.”

Spring fever

Soon the movement caught the attention of the press, with stories appearing in Forbes, the New York Times, and other mainstream media. What made this action against one publisher such a cause célèbre? There are several reasons:

  • Gowers is a respected voice in his field and a recipient of the Fields Medal, equivalent in prestige to a Nobel Prize.
  • He framed it as a problem that academics could solve simply—by making different choices.
  • It was an articulation of widespread outrage among scientists at the audacity of the RWA, which Elsevier supported and which collapsed as soon as Elsevier withdrew its support. Scholars have grown accustomed to signing over copyright in exchange for publishing services. Authorship is so fundamental to the way scholars think about contributions to knowledge that transferring copyright seemed a minor technicality. But when publishers told Congress that scholars’ research was corporate property, describing it as “journal articles produced by private-sector publishers,” its actual creators were infuriated. Treating their copyright so cavalierly suddenly seemed a big mistake.
  • Finally, the RWA was introduced at a time when industries whose business model relies on restricting access to intellectual property overplayed their hand in Congress and met with strong public resistance, bringing to mind the rapid spread of support via social media for protesters in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park.

What was notable about the response to Gowers’s original post—which quickly gathered more than 400 comments and pingbacks—was that academics were not just complaining about the situation, they were discussing practical solutions and sketching the outlines of a different future. As the February 4 Economist put it, this signaled a serious resistance movement, suggesting that publishers could no longer count on the status quo, because “publishers need academics more than academics need publishers. And incumbents often look invulnerable until they suddenly fall. Beware, then, the Academic spring.”

For librarians who have been trying to raise awareness for years, this spring seems to be a late one. But if The Economist is right, this is a good time to get to work and use our talents and resources to support new modes of sharing knowledge.

(Looking for ideas about how to take action? SPARC’s new publication, You’ve Signed on to the Boycott, Now What? offers handy talking points and suggestions for librarians and faculty.)

BARBARA FISTER is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College who often writes about the open access movement at Inside Higher Ed and Library Journal.