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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

Copyfight

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January 30, 2012

The Peasants are Revolting (Scientifically)

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

There has long been an undercurrent of opposition to the publishing houses that control scientific and technical publication. Unlike other publications that at least nominally pay their contributors, these publishers profit off the free work of researchers, editors, and reviewers - none of whom get paid for their journal work - who are captive to a "publish or perish" ecosystem within academia. The journals are often quite expensive and are sold to libraries in high-priced bundles.

Almost nobody is happy with this arrangement: authors complain that their work is taken and used for someone else's profit; libraries complain that these journals' costs eat up a huge amount of their budgets, which are already tight; publishers complain that they can't make (much) money on this business despite these arrangements.

Responses have varied. Notably PLoS, the Public Library of Science, is trying to make an online venue respectable for these kinds of publishing. I've been blogging about PLoS since at least 2005 and not much has changed with tech pubs in the years since.

Even though I'm no longer in the research world I still have many friends and colleagues who are, one of whom sent me a link to "The Cost of Knowledge" petition against Elsevier. The online petition sports over 1100 signatures as of this writing, all active researchers and all pledging not to do more free work for Elsevier unless "they radically change how they operate."

The petition lists three grievances: journal pricing, the practice of forcing libraries to buy large bundles of journals, and Elsevier's corporate support for SOPA/PIPA and similar legislation that is antithetical to free and open information flow. Sadly it doesn't list any specific steps that Elsevier should take that would satisfy the petitioners. As an expression of grievance it's clear, but how Tyler Neylon - the petition organizer - expects things to be different is less clear.

The petition also links to the PolyMath Journal Publishing Reform wiki page, hosted by Michael Nielsen, himself a widely published researcher. The blog page lists no fewer than five separate petitions including "The Cost of Knowledge" all of which are trying to use researcher community people power against the publishers.

Although Nielsen's page lists some successes in getting Elsevier in particular to change its behavior, I am dubious that any of the big sci tech publishers will change their practices. These publishers are just as doomed as every other hardcopy publication in today's world, but they can use their monopoly leverage to stave off that doom for many more years. Asking them to give it up is asking for a form of corporate suicide, which they have no incentive to do. If academics really want things to change then they need to start with their own houses; for example, by changing what gets counted for tenure cases and what weight is given to publication in open and online venues.

I've mentioned the existence of highly respected online specialist communities before. These are places where the top people - as recognized by their peers - go to share and discuss new research ideas. People who are experts within the community know who is contributing good ideas and making a difference in advancing the theory of the field. And I'll bet you it matters not one whit to their tenure cases. Change that, and you stand a chance of breaking the sci/tech publishing stranglehold. Until real action happens on the academic side, petitions remain just symbolic protest.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Culture


COMMENTS

1. Tyler Neylon on January 30, 2012 6:53 PM writes...

The cost of knowledge site was inspired by Tim Gowers's recent blog post publicly calling for action against Elsevier [1]; he recently followed it up with a great explanation on exactly what can be done next [2].

Some specific ideas: encourage the creation of free-access electronic journals, and discourage editorial teams working with high-cost publishers. Platforms like [3] are being built which look extremely promising in terms of how non-programmers can go about setting up a new online journal. There are many other efforts in these directions mentioned on the PolyMath publishing reform page [4].

[1] http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/
[2] http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/whats-wrong-with-electronic-journals/
[3] http://www.scholasticahq.com/
[4] http://michaelnielsen.org/polymath1/index.php?title=Journal_publishing_reform

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