I have, for a while, been frustrated and annoyed by the behavior of several of the large for-profit publishers. I understand that their motivations are different from my own, but I’ve always felt that an industry that relies entirely on both large amounts of federal funding (to pay scientists to do the research and write up the results) and a massive volunteer effort to conduct peer review (the scientists again) needed to strike a balance between the needs of the folks doing all of the work and the corporations need to maximize profits.
Despite my concerns about the impacts of increasingly closed journals, with increasingly high costs, on the dissemination of research and the ability of universities to support their core missions of teaching and research, I have continued to volunteer my time and effort as a reviewer to Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell. I did this because I have continued to see valuable contributions made by these journals and I felt that this combined with the contribution that I was making to science by helping improve the science published in high profile places made supporting these journals worthwhile. I no longer believe this to be the case and from now on I will no longer be reviewing for any journal that is published by Elsevier, Springer, or Wiley-Blackwell (including society journals that publish through them).
Why have I changed my mind? Because of the pursuit/support by these companies of the Research Works Act. This act seeks to prevent funding agencies from requiring that the results of research that they funded be made publicly available. In other words it seeks to prevent the government (and the taxpayers that fund it), which pays for a very large fraction of the cost of any given paper through both funding the research and paying the salaries of reviewers and editors, from having any say in how that research is disseminated. I think that Mike Taylor in the Guardian said most clearly how I feel about this attempt to exert legislative control requiring us to support corporate profits over the dissemination of scientific research:
Academic publishers have become the enemies of science
This is the moment academic publishers gave up all pretence of being on the side of scientists. Their rhetoric has traditionally been of partnering with scientists, but the truth is that for some time now scientific publishers have been anti-science and anti-publication. The Research Works Act, introduced in the US Congress on 16 December, amounts to a declaration of war by the publishers.
You should read the entire article. It’s powerful. There are lots of other great articles about the RWA including Michael Eisen in the New York Times, a nice post by INNGE, and a interesting piece by Paul Krugman (via oikosjeremy). I’m also late to the party in declaring my peer review strike and less eloquent than many of my peers in explaining why (see great posts by Michael Taylor, Gavin Simpson, and Timothy Gowers). But I’m here now and I’m letting you know so that you can consider whether or not you also want to stop volunteering for companies that don’t have science’s best interests in mind.
If you’d like to read up on the publisher’s side of this argument (they have costs, they have a right to recoup them) you can see Springer’s official position or an Elsevier Exec’s exchange with Michael Eisen. My problem with all of these arguments is that there is nothing in any funding agency’s policy that requires publishers to publish work funded by that agency. This is not (as Springer has argued) an “unfunded mandate”, this is a stake holder that has certain requirements related to the publication of research in which they have an interest. This is just like an author (in any non-academic publishing situation) negotiating with a publisher. If the publisher doesn’t like the terms that the author demands, then they don’t have to publish the book. Likewise, if a publisher doesn’t like the NIH policy then they should simply not agree to publish NIH funded research.
To be clear, I am not as extreme in my position as some. I still support and will review for independent society journals like Ecology and American Naturalist even though they aren’t Open Access and even though ESA has made some absurd comments in support of the same ideas that are in RWA. The important thing for me is that these journals have the best interests of science in mind, even if they are often frustratingly behind the times in how they think and operate.
And don’t worry, I’ve still got plenty of journal related work to keep me busy, thanks to my new position on the editorial board at PLoS ONE.
UPDATE: The links to the INNGE and Timothy Gowers post have now been fixed, and here are links to a couple of great posts by Casey Bergman that I somehow left out: one on how to turn down reviews while making a point and one on the not so positive response he received to one of these emails.
UPDATE 2: A great collection of posts on RWA. There are a lot of really unhappy scientists out there.
UPDATE 3: A formal Boycott of Elsevier. Almost 1000 scientists have signed on so far.
UPDATE 4: Wiley-Blackwell has now distanced itself from RWA and said that “We do not believe that legislative initiatives are the best way forward at this time and so have no plans to endorse RWA. Instead we believe that research funder-publisher partnerships will be more productive.” In addition, it was announced that a bill that would do the opposite of RWA has now been introduced. Hooray for collective action!