Sunday, April 15, 2012

The cost of knowledge

Cambridge University professor, Timothy Gowers, started a campaign to boycott Elsevier last January. The number of signatures recently passed 9,600 as researchers across the world have signed the boycott at The Cost Of Knowledge website. The boycott targets Elsevier specifically for charging “exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions,” which forces libraries to buy expensive journal bundles rather than choosing individual titles they want, and for supporting measures such as SOPA, PIPA, which attempt to control the free exchange of information for corporate profit. 
    So what's the deal here, surely these journals have been published for many years without issue. In 2010, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of $3.2 billion. Any business person would tell you that a profit margin of 36% is more than healthy . Here's how Elsevier makes so much profit; researchers write a paper describing their research and submit it to a journal for publication. The editor of the journal, a senior academic, is an unpaid volunteer who selects several academics to review the paper. The reviewers are unpaid volunteers who read the paper, assess its quality and maybe suggest improvements to the authors. If the paper is accepted for publication the authors prepare the paper to very precise formatting instructions so that all papers in the journal look the same. The authors then submit the formatted paper to the editor and sign away their copyright to Elsevier. When enough new papers have been obtained a new volume of the journal is published. They used to be physically published, at a cost to the publisher, but now most academics access journals online. Elsevier then charge a subscription for access to the journal. An annual subscription to Artificial Intelligence, the leading journal in my discipline, costs $2,999 (USD)!
    So, at every stage of the production process academics give their time and effort for free and then Elsevier charges the very same academics a fee to access their own work - and you thought university professors were supposed to be smart!
    You can read a colleague's blog post about the Elsevier boycott here.