February 29, 2012

Elsevier backs down in response to academic uprising … or does it?


The “academic spring” uprising of professors against academic publishing giant Elsevier has led to at least a partial victory: in a statement released late Monday, the publisher announced it was withdrawing its support of the Research Works Act, a proposed piece of legislation that would have dropped the requirement that all publicly funded research be open to the public. The RWA was adamantly opposed by the petitioners. From Elsevier’s release:

We have heard expressions of support from publishers and scholarly societies for the principle behind the legislation. However, we have also heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature. That was certainly not our intention in supporting it. This perception runs counter to our commitment to making published research widely accessible, coming at a time when we continue to expand our access options for authors and develop advanced technologies to enable the sharing and distribution of research results.

UPon hearing the news, US Representatives Darrel Issa  and Carolyn Maloney immediately withdrew the bill, killing it.

Meanwhile the company also released a letter addressed to the “mathematics community,” announcing a response to another of the charges against it — that its mathematics journals were outrageously expensive. The letter, from Elseiver’s David Clark and Laura Hassink, “Senior Vice Presidents, Physical Science,” says it will be lowering prices.

As a New Scientist report details,

The company says the target for its core mathematics titles is a price of $11 or less per article, which would place it below most university presses, some societies and its commercial competitors. “Where journals are more expensive than this, we will lower our prices,” says the letter.

It has also opened the archives of 14 mathematics journals, offering free access to articles published more than four years ago back to 1995, when the company began publishing digitally. “All current and future papers featured in these journals will become free to read, for subscribers and non subscribers alike,” say Clark and Hassink.

Nonetheless, as a report in The Scientist details, protesters weren’t necessarily impressed.

… some boycotters aren’t changing their positions based on Elsevier’s latest move. University of North Carolina theoretical biology PhD student Joel Adamson said that the company’s decision was welcomed, but that it didn’t go far enough to deter his support for the boycott. “Within the realm of those kinds of solutions, it is a good thing, but it still doesn’t go all the way toward what I would call a real solution to the problem,” he said. “It shows me that they are a predictable corporation; in other words that they’re capable of being scared that something might affect their profits.” Adamson added that if Elsevier would abandon “bundling practices,” in which the company allegedly groups desirable science journals with less-august titles in package deals for university libraries, it would go further towards changing his mind.

Or, as Albert Einstein College of Medicine geneticist Brett Abrahams says in the report, “They’ve just taken a very far reaching outrageous position and backed off it a little bit.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives