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January 27, 2012

The cost of knowledge

Did you know that Congress is considering prohibiting the free dissemination of knowledge produced by federal research dollars? That's what the Research Works Act would do. The bill is backed by companies like Elsevier, who profit mainly from the volunteer labor of scientists (who produce the research and who vet the research for quality), and thus have a vested interest in preventing the free exchange of knowledge [1,2], or at least in extracting rents from everyone involved in it.

Other commercial publishers may not be as bad as Elsevier, but there are serious problems with them as well. Computers have arguably reduced the valued added by commercial publishers because they allow scientists to do themselves many of the tasks that publishers used to perform (like typesetting, spell checking, etc.), and they have virtually eliminated the cost of distribution and storage. Prof. Michael Eisen, writing in the New York Times [3], laid out the case for why open access publishing is not only realistic, but also morally responsible. To be honest, I am deeply sympathetic with these arguments and am reminded of them whenever I try to access journals when I'm off campus.

More recently, the Fields Medalist Tim Gowers [4] has started a petition to let working scientists declare their opposition to the Research Works Act [5] by promising to boycott Elsevier. (See also his explanation of why he's doing this.)

You can help by declaring that you (1) won't publish with them, (2) wont' referee for them, and/or (3) won't do editorial work for them. Please consider signing up, and also encouraging your colleagues to do the same:

The Cost Of Knowledge

Finally, John Baez has some thoughtful analysis of the problem, its origin and some potential solutions on his blog.

Tip to Slashdot.

Update 27 February: Elsevier has dropped support for the Research Works Act, and has written a letter to the mathematics community. The claim they will now reduce the overall cost they impose on the mathematics community, but in fact, this is merely a cynical sop because mathematics is a tiny part of Elsevier's portfolio.


[1] Elsevier used to make some money from the military arms trade, but partly due to a furor raised by scientists, it eventually cut its ties to the international arms fairs in 2008. Given Elsevier's history, it seems unlikely that they would have made this choice without the public pressure the furor generated.

[2] Elsevier is perhaps the worst offender in the private scientific publishing industry. Their journals (even the crappy ones) typically cost significantly more than other private or non-profit publishers, they've even been caught taking money from the pharmaceutical industry in exchange for creating fake medical journals in which to publish fake research, and a few of their journals have been implicated in more academic types of fraud.

[3] Michael Eisen is one of the founders of the highly regarded Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access scientific publishing group. PLoS's founding story is relevant: it is well respected in the scientific community because many of its original journals were started by the members of journal editorial boards for Elsevier, who resigned en masse in protest over Elsevier's odious practices.

[4] The Fields Medal is a bit like a Nobel Prize for Mathematics.

[5] The bill's name really is a lovely example of Orwellian double speak.

posted January 27, 2012 07:02 AM in Simply Academic | permalink


Thanks for posting this. I hope that a movement is starting to coalesce. Like many others, I haven't done business with Elsevier for quite a few years. Below is a version of my standard refusal letter that I send to editors. Five years ago I would usually get an (unpersuasive) response from someone at Elsevier. Now such notes usually don't get any response at all.

I am writing to let you know that I am declining to review the manuscript submitted to [Name of Journal]. I do not feel right providing uncompensated labor, in the form of refereeing, to a for-profit enterprise such as Elsevier, the company that publishes [Name of Journal]. In 2010 Reed-Elsevier reported an operating profit of over 1.8 Billion euros. Much of this profit comes at the expense of the scientific community. Authors and referees are uncompensated. And for-profit journals such as those owned by Elsevier charge subscriptions rates that are, on average, between 3 and 6 times as expensive as those produced by non-profit professional societies. These exorbitant costs must be born by college and university libraries -- organizations which are, for the most part, publicly funded. Elsevier reaps large profits from uncompensated labor of the scientific community and directly from public expenditures for university libraries.

I have thus decided to no longer perform referring services to for-profit journals. I can no longer in good conscience support for-profit academic journal publishers such as Elsevier, as I believe Elsevier is ultimately harmful to the scientific enterprise.

Ted Bergstrom has an excellent set of resources on journal pricing and for-profit publishers. This includes a link to "Free Labor for Costly Journals?", a highly readable paper he published in 2001 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Posted by: Anonymous at January 27, 2012 09:17 AM

Well, this is disturbing.

Posted by: Liz at January 27, 2012 08:37 PM

I recently read something relevant about Elsevier's policy on datamining - namely that they explicitly prohibit it despite the immense potential benefits of it. It's frustrating when greed takes precedence over the public good.

Posted by: Jade at February 3, 2012 05:41 AM