For the last month, the academic publishing industry has been the latest battlefield over American copyright law. In December 2011, the US Congress introduced the controversial Research Works Act, which aimed to reverse the National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy of requiring academic research papers funded by its federal grants to be made open access one year after its publication. In short, the RWA would require that all parties with rights to the papers in question (including publishers) come to an agreement before a paper could be made open access. In effect, this would allow publishers to unilaterally prevent papers published in their journals from becoming open access.
Although this has been attempted several times before, this iteration of the Act has drawn the greatest controversy and criticism to date. Publishers supported the bill through the Association of American Publishers, an industry lobby group representing intellectual property interests of their members.
One publisher in particular, the Netherlands-based Elsevier (which publishes prominent medical journals such as The Lancet and Cell, among many others), came under fire from the scientific community for its donations to the co-sponsors of the bill, Reps. Darrel Issa and Carolyn Maloney. Combined with grievances about their pricing policies, a group of scientists led by mathematician Tim Gowers started a boycott of the publisher.
Over 7,500 published researchers around the world joined the boycott, dubbed The Cost of Knowledge. They promised to refrain from publishing, reviewing, or editing papers for Elsevier as the boycott grew over the last few weeks. Negative press had been accumulating from both mainstream and scientific news sources for weeks.
Researchers called for greater support of open access online journals, and many publicly supported efforts to cut out the publishers, which collectively rake in billions of dollars in revenue every year. Many in the academic community expressed frustration over publishing policies and strict rights agreements, and noted that the publishers were charging fees at every possible opportunity – for publishing, distribution, access, and subscriptions – in effect putting up unnecessary barriers for information, much of it publicly-funded research.
Finally, things came to a head today and Elsevier bowed down, announcing that it would drop support for the Research Works Act, although maintaining that it continued to oppose the government’s position:
We have heard expressions of support from publishers and scholarly societies for the principle behind the legislation. However, we have also heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature.
While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.
Later in the day, the co-sponsors of the RWA, Reps. Issa and Maloney, announced that they would drop the legislation and continue discussions with both publishers and the research community:
As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open-access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future. The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue, and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.
While this can fairly be called a victory for academics, the implications of the boycott movement may have long-lasting consequences for publishers who have long resisted the open access movement and often charged high fees for subscription and online journal access.
For example, the Faculty of 1000, a site that organizes “post-publication peer review” for the medical and biological sciences, last month launched the F1000 research, an alternative to academic publishing that would allow researchers to publish in their data base under a Creative Commons license, and allow other published researchers to write public comments on the paper (acting like informal peer-review).
Other similar services have also come to prominence as a result of the boycott, including the arXiv, which hosts pre-publication and working papers in the physical and mathematical fields, as well as SSRN, hosting similar content for the social sciences fields including law.
Of course, these services come with their own set of issues, including the lack of quality control and pre-publication peer review. These issues, however, are not difficult to work out and sites like the arXiv already have existing policies in place to ensure a minimum level of quality, including an “endorsement” system to maintain credibility of authors.
Thus, the threat to traditional publications remains – if researchers become accustomed to and familiar with online publishing practices, they may see more value both in terms of money and reach by cutting out the publishing “gatekeepers”.