April 12, 2012

Academic researchers in battle against journal publishers


A spat of economic proportions is brewing in the academic publishing world.

Tim Gowers, Fields Medal winner and mathematician at Cambridge posted an article last week claiming that expensive paywalls used by academic publishers like Elsevier prevent important research from reaching more people and therefore minimize the development of ideas that otherwise would spread and take root in various communities across the globe.

The Guardian reports:

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 and his colleagues insist that publishers are making bundles off the work of researchers and suggest that by removing paywalls and offering free access to academic journals, research and ideas would germinate more effectively and free up the significant funds universities must spend in order to grant employees and students access to various journals’ content.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar argument has frayed the hem of book publishing for the past couple years. It seems two camps exist: camp A believes free access to content is paramount and that publishers rely on an outdated model just to stay in business; camp B believes publishers actually benefit the dissemination and distribution of content and remain vital parts of the editorial package.

To wit, camp A:

Gowers says that publishers rarely make it explicit that the peer review they depend on for quality control is all done voluntarily and publishers are making profits on the back of this voluntary work.

“Academics write the papers, academics referee the papers, academics select the papers that are going to be published – it’s almost as though the publisher does nothing that we need except perhaps their organisational role and lending the name of the journal that confers a certain reputation.”

And from Nature, a journal in camp B:

In an editorial published in January, the journal defended the value it added to the scientific process, saying that publishing original research papers required its editors to “undertake careful assessment of scientific significance, and the refereeing stage involves much deliberation, occasional debate and revisions that significantly enhance the robustness and scientific impact of the paper”.

Of course there’s no easy answer, and both camps are partly right. Wider distribution and greater access to key academic research is without question a necessary part of worldwide intellectual growth. However, lacking the platform and guidelines publishers provide, research could not as readily be accepted as fact, or at least peer-reviewed. Furthermore, an open online forum, suggested by Gowers and used to create and evaluate academic research, would be fiendish to monitor, seeing how most research is usually hotly contested and/or competitive.

Regardless, it seems the two camps of academic publishing are pitching their tents. Again, from The Guardian:

Publishing companies will no doubt need to change in response to the call for increased open access. In response to the Cost of Knowledge petition, Elsevier said it would “create a scientific council for mathematics, to ensure that we are working in tandem with the mathematics community to address feedback and to give greater control and transparency to the community”.

But Gowers doubts Elsevier could do anything bold enough to win back his support and is instead focused on ways the web might open up scientific research in future. His main hope after writing his blogpost is that people get energised to try out new ideas and set up new open access journals or web-based evaluation methods.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. What do you think?

Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.