Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Elsevier Boycott

At this point, everyone must already know about the scientists boycott of the publisher Elsevier. As for today, more than 3000 scientists signed a supporting document called "The Cost of Knowledge" vowing not to do any free work for them.

Hold on... Free work?

Oh, you are one of the persons who didn't know that scientists do free work for the publishers? So, I need to give a step back and clarify some points about scientific publishing. I'll be brief.

1. The author(s) of a paper looses the copyright of his work to the publisher.
2. Authors do not receive one single cent for their papers.
3. Publishers do not pay one cent for the referees.
4. Publishers are the only ones who have the right to charge for the work they published. Forever.

That means that unlike any other publishing area in the whole world, academics give their work for free to the publishers and, not only that, they give the eternal right for the publishers to exploit that work economically forever and also the right to sue the author if he tries to do the same.

'Are you scientists idiots?' you might say. That's outrageous. Of course we aren't. However, we want our work seen by other scientists. Okay, we could put it on a website. Many of us do it now on the arXiv. Still, if we want to be hired by universities and to get money from funding agencies (so we can survive), arXiv counts as nothing. We need to publish in "certified" journals. Like those from Elsevier. What else can we do?

Now, we are not a very politically active breed. What we really want to do is just our research. But once in a while, not happy with all the money they are getting from our free work, a publisher wants to go even further and try to push into the USA congress a law that is clearly an abuse against the free exchange of information (SOPA, PIPA the Research Works Act). In those occasions, we finally notice the obvious and someone has the courage to make a stand against it.

Obviously, Elsevier is not the only publisher who exploits our free work, but they committed a mistake of lobbying for the above restrictive legislation and called attention to themselves. The other publishers remained neutral, I suppose, and that seemed to be a good strategy.

Elsevier obviously answered to the accusations after a while. The delay was, obviously, the time needed for the marketing people to find the write words, as always. In any case, they answered exactly as my wife, a lawyer, said they would. For instance, when accused of charging too much, they said they charge less than the others. Of course, that's just a fallacy. The fact that they charge less than the others doesn't mean that they don't charge much, only that the others charge a lot as well. I pay $50 for my annual signature of Scientific American. Some of Elsevier titles cost $20000. The difference is that SA really hires some journalists and pays for the articles. (At leas, I think so. Please tell me if I'm wrong.)

The second accusation is that they force libraries to buy bundled journals. When I asked my wife if that wasn't illegal, she, a very good lawyer, said to me that that was too difficult to prove. You can always say that the bundled price is a discount. A very good one. If you check this article at The Guardian, you will see that their lawyers also know that. I will quote their answer here:
(...) It said the claim about bundles was "absolutely false". "Elsevier allows you to buy articles at the level of the individual article, to buy a single journal, any combination of any number of journals and everything we have," said Dr Nick Fowler, director of global academic relations at Elsevier. "There are benefits that come from taking more, which is a very standard practice, but that doesn't mean you don't have the choice [not to] – but then you can't expect a discount." (...)
The last bit, the support to SOPA and the rest, was conveniently forgot in the answers. The fact that they don't pay either for the articles or for the reviewers was also not mentioned. Neither the copyright issue.

The last, funny thing, was the appeal to the people's feelings done by Dr Dick Fowler, the director of global academic relations of Elsevier. He said:
 "It's hurtful to spend your life trying to advance science and medicine and be told you're blocking it."
Yes... how insensitive are we... I'm not gonna comment anything about his salary and ours... Oops! I've just did. How insensitive of me...

Please, just browse "Elsevier Boycott" on Google and read the arguments of the two sides. That's very important. After you did that... well, if you are a scientist, sign the petition. ;) Oh, and don't forget to read this very nice piece by Scott Aaronson about the issue.

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