THE BLOG

Closing Access to Scientific Literature: The Battle Begins

12/20/2013 08:43 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

Science is all about communication. That is, almost all practicing researchers publish their work in journals as a way of communicating their advances and their thinking across the broader scientific community. These journals have broad readership, permanency, and the imprimatur of peer review, and as such constitute the main substance of science communication.

As I have discussed in previous postings, however, commercial publishing firms in recent decades saw an opportunity to make big bucks, and bought up many or most of the most important journals for science communication. In some cases, a single firm owns several thousand journals, and thus controls a substantial chunk of the scientific literature. This oligopoly, in which a few commercial entities control most all of a market or a resource, has led to serious abuses: commercial firms have raised prices at alarming rates, to the extent that many university libraries are unable to provide access to all important journals for students and professors; universities have been forced to buy journals that are not useful or of interest because they are 'bundled' and sold together with important journals; and the global community of scholars and indeed the general public have been effectively shut out of accessing much of the scientific literature.

With all this money to be made, who can fault these companies for protecting their cash-cow investments?

The Problem Is...

Again, scientists depend critically on communication, and those journals that the oligopolies have bought up and are protecting so jealously are our prime medium of communicating. Scientists have always published in these journals, blithely signed away our copyrights prior to publication, and then circulated our publications openly by sending reprints to colleagues, more recently by sharing PDFs and links, and most recently via communal sites like Academia.edu. Quite simply, without scientific journals accessible to all, science grinds to a halt.

The big bad wolf among the commercial publishers is Elsevier. Elsevier describes itself thus:

[T]he world's leading provider of science and health information, Elsevier serves more than 30 million scientists, students and health and information professionals worldwide. We partner with a global community of 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, 300,000 reviewers and 600,000 authors to help customers advance science and health by providing world-class information and innovative tools that help them make critical decisions, enhance productivity and improve outcomes.

That sounds pretty good. However, in recent weeks, Elsevier directed Academia.edu to remove all Elsevier-owned scientific papers from its site. Next, Elsevier sent a message to the University of Calgary, directing it to remove all such papers from its publicly accessible websites. Quite clearly, these threats are Elsevier's next step towards milking a few last millions out of its journal holdings. Does this really sound like helping people to make critical decisions, enhance productivity and improve outcomes? Oh wait, it said helping customers, right? I guess that it's all about the money...

What does this lockdown achieve? It throttles scientific communication. The scientific literature is growing very rapidly, and it is a struggle for every scientist to keep up with all of the fascinating papers that are coming out. Closing access makes this situation vastly more difficult. (Indeed, I am writing this blog post from my mother's house, and have no access to key scientific journals from here!)

Elsevier Director of Access & Policy Alicia Wise tried to respond to the firestorm of protest and anger over the lockdown:

Why do we send take down notices? We aim to ensure that the final published version of an article is readily discoverable and citable via the journal itself in order to maximize the usage metrics and credit for our authors, and to protect the quality and integrity of the scientific record. The formal publications on our platforms also give researchers better tools and links, for example to data.

Serving copies openly does not endanger the quality or the integrity of the scientific record... what it really comes down to is very simply protecting profits and income streams. Elsevier (and a lot of other commercial publishers) made an investment, and are trying to squeeze as much profit out of it as they possibly can, no matter what the consequences may be.

What to Do?

Science has many exciting possibilities and challenges ahead: solving the challenges of living sustainably in an increasingly crowded world, cataloguing life on Earth, avoiding the worst of the effects of global climate change, to name just a few. These challenges are important, and yet Elsevier and the like are slowing progress, simply as a consequence of their efforts to maximize profits. What can scientists, not to mention the general public, do to call them out, and possibly make them stop? Here are some ideas:

  • Help to document the problem: A group has recently developed a web tool that allows researchers and others to report closed-access 'paywalls' (more than 3000 so far!), helping to document the dimensions of the problem. This tool is available at https://www.openaccessbutton.org/, along with a very nice, zoomable map of where scientists are not getting access to the literature.

  • Join the boycott: More than 14,000 scientists have signed a boycott, in which they pledge not to publish, referee papers, or offer editorial services, for Elsevier journals (http://thecostofknowledge.com/). This number is still small compared to the number of scientists, but it is growing rapidly, and indicates to Elsevier that the community is tiring of its bully tactics.
  • Use open-access journals: A growing suite of journals (more than 10,000, see http://www.doaj.org/) serves the community without access barriers or exorbitant subscription costs. Researchers can protest against the commercial interests by supporting these journals by publishing with, and reviewing and editing for them.
  • Rebel and keep posting: Although (legally) Elsevier and its commercial buddies do often own the copy rights to the papers that they are protecting so jealously, many scientists feel that those same papers represent our intellectual products. Institutions obviously must comply with these requests, but many individuals are trusting in safety in numbers, and continuing to share their scholarship openly.
  • The point is that science is not a commercial thing, not a cash-cow investment. Rather, science is a communal, cooperative enterprise in which information, knowledge, data, and ideas are shared openly and broadly. Any entity that puts commercial interests ahead of this shared enterprise, such as Elsevier, needs to be told to get its priorities straight.