Many of the science journals to which we are indebted for our news are published by Elsevier. In “Elsevier boycott gathers pace” (Nature, 09 February 2012), John Whitfield reports, “Rebel academics ponder how to break free of commercial publishers”,
Timothy Gowers is surprised and delighted that thousands of mathematics and other researchers have joined him in a public pledge not to have anything to do with Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based academic publishing giant. He is leading a boycott because of company practices that he says hinder the dissemination of research.
He cited Elsevier’s high prices; the practice of bundling journals, which some see as forcing libraries to subscribe to journals they don’t want to get those that they do; and the company’s support for US legislation such as the Research Works Act (RWA), which would forbid government agencies from requiring that the results of research they fund be placed in public repositories. Elsevier is not the only publisher guilty of such practices, says Gowers, but it is the worst offender.
Nearly 5,000 researchers have joined him. But it’s not clear how – or whether – a boycott would work.
Gowers is entertaining more radical ideas, such as creating journals that consist solely of links to papers posted on the arXiv preprint server. Publishers are no longer needed to typeset or distribute papers, he says; the main outstanding question is how to replicate or replace the role that journals play in reviewing work and conferring prestige.
The problem is that anyone who does play that role becomes a publisher, for good or ill. Stay tuned.