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Elsevier Publishing Boycott Gathers Steam Among Academics

The eminent mathematician Timothy Gowers vows to do no work for Elsevier.

Elsevier, the global publishing company, is responsible for The Lancet, Cell, and about 2,000 other important journals; the iconic reference work Gray’s Anatomy, along with 20,000 other books—and one fed-up, award-winning mathematician.

Timothy Gowers of the University of Cambridge, who won the Fields Medal for his research, has organized a boycott of Elsevier because, he says, its pricing and policies restrict access to work that should be much more easily available. He asked for a boycott in a blog post on January 21, and as of Monday evening, on the boycott’s Web site The Cost of Knowledge, nearly 1,900  scientists have signed up, pledging not to publish, referee, or do editorial work for any Elsevier journal.

The company has sinned in three areas, according to the boycotters: It charges too much for its journals; it bundles subscriptions to lesser journals together with valuable ones, forcing libraries to spend money to buy things they don’t want in order to get a few things they do want; and, most recently, it has supported a proposed federal law (called the Research Works Act) that would prevent agencies like the National Institutes of Health from making all articles written by its grant recipients freely available.

Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an open-publishing advocate, signed the pledge and wrote that “With the moves of these megapublishers, we [are] seeing the beginning of monopoly control of the scholarly record.” Benjamin R. Seyfarth, an associate professor in the School of Computing at the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote that “nearly all university research is funded by the public and should be available for free.”

The idea has echoed around the academic blogosphere, picking up endorsements. Elsevier itself has remained silent, though it may release a statement on Tuesday. There are occasional defenders in the blog comments, such as this response to the blog Crooked Timber’s rallying cry for the boycott: “As a neuroscientist, Elsevier journals are an important factor in publication choice. Losing a crucial set of publication outlets to a poorly informed rally against this company will certainly damage the integrity of the scientific record in my field.”

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