An academic publisher should widely disseminate the knowledge produced by scholars, not hold it for ransom. But ransoming scientific research back to the academic community is essentially the business model of the world’s largest publisher of scientific journals: Elsevier.
In February of this year, after drawn-out negotiations broke down, the University of California terminated its subscription with Elsevier. A central sticking point in these negotiations was around open access: specifically Elsevier’s refusal to provide universal open access to UC research, a problem exacerbated by skyrocketing subscription fees.
This has been an ongoing fight, not just in California. Many academics (and EFF) believe that scholarly research most effectively advances scientific progress when it is widely available to the public, and not subject to the paywalls erected by publishers. Scientific research is a driving force behind technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, and policy decisions, and the bulk of it in the U.S. is publicly funded. When libraries, universities, individuals, and even researchers themselves have to pay to access academic work, we all suffer.
Elsevier boasts profit margins in excess of 30%, much of it derived from taxpayer dollars. Academics effectively volunteer their time to publishers to write articles, conduct peer review, and sit on editorial boards, and then publishers demand ownership of the copyright and control over dissemination. Universities and other institutions fund these researchers, and a mega-publisher like Elsevier reaps the benefits while trapping all of that work behind a paywall.
In response to this outdated and deleterious system, two UCSF researchers have started a petition to boycott Elsevier, calling on all academics to refuse to publish in Elsevier journals, peer-review their articles, or sit on their editorial boards (as many already have). They’ve also written a piece calling for a wider re-imagining of the academic publishing system, that’s more in line with an open access model. A large and growing number of scholars have signed the petition already.
This is far from the first time someone has called for a boycott of Elsevier. Efforts go back to 2012 with a call to action from mathematician Timothy Gowers which led to the “The Cost of Knowledge” campaign. Since then, boycotts have extended across entire countries, across Asia, Europe, and South America. Elsevier has even gotten into scraps in its home country of The Netherlands, where universities banded together to force Elsevier to make 30% of the research published by Dutch researchers open access (though they were asking for 100%).
German universities and research institutions, who have not renewed their subscriptions with Elsevier due to a contract dispute, are already planning to use their predicted savings in subscription funds to convert 50 scientific journals from ten publishers from a subscription model to open access.
Elsevier also has a long history of fighting open access, going so far as to file mass takedown requests against authors attempting to make their own work available to the public. Despite some recent legislative successes on open access in California law, and universities across the country enacting their own open access policies, efforts at the federal level have repeatedly stalled in the United States (though Europe has had greater success).
As open access is gaining more traction legislatively, however, Elsevier appears to be doing everything in its power to dig itself in even further, going so far as to patent online peer-review, winning them EFF’s Stupid Patent of the Month.
The progress of knowledge and culture happens when scholarly works of all kinds are widely shared, rather than locked behind paywalls and restrictive licensing. Efforts to boycott Elsevier and reimagine the scholarly communications ecosystem are on the forefront of the fight for knowledge.
EFF is proud to celebrate Open Access Week 2019.