Sat, Apr 14, 2012 - Page 9 News List

How an angry math blog grew into a scientific revolution

Academic journal publishers charge extremely high subscription fees and record similarly high profits, while receiving researchers’ work and vetting for free. One Cambridge mathematician’s online protest has led to a growing movement demanding more open access to scientific knowledge on the Web

By Alok Jha  /  The Guardian, London

Illustration: Tania Chou

It began with a frustrated blogpost by a distinguished mathematician. Tim Gowers and his colleagues had been grumbling among themselves for several years about the rising costs of academic journals.

They, like many other academics, were upset that the work produced by their peers, and funded largely by taxpayers, sat behind the paywalls of private publishing houses that charged UK universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year for the privilege of access.

There had been talk last year that a major scientific body might come out in public to highlight the problem and rally scientists to speak out against the publishing companies, but nothing was happening fast.

So, in January, Gowers wrote an article on his blog declaring that he would henceforth decline to submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals in the world.

He was not expecting what happened next. Thousands of people read the post and hundreds left supportive comments. Within a day, one of his readers had set up a Web site, The Cost of Knowledge, which allowed academics to register their protest against Elsevier.

The site now has almost 9,000 signatories, all of whom have committed themselves to refuse to either peer review, submit to or undertake editorial work for Elsevier journals.

“I wasn’t expecting it to make such a splash,” Gowers says. “At first, I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up.”

Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University and winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, had hit a nerve with academics who were increasingly fed up with the stranglehold that a few publishing companies have gained over the publication and distribution of the world’s scientific research.

The current publishing model for science is broken, say an ever-increasing number of supporters of open access publishing, a model whereby all scientific research funded by taxpayers would be made available on the Web for free.

Expensive paywalls not only waste university funds, they say, but slow down future scientific discovery and put up barriers for interested members of the public, politicians and patients’ groups who need access to primary research to exercise their democratic rights.

Imperial College London structural biologist says that scientists need to come to a new arrangement with publishers fit for the online age and that “for a long time, we’ve been taken for a ride and it’s got ridiculous.”

“We face important policy choices on a whole raft of issues — climate change, energy generation, cloning, stem cell technology, GM foods — that we cannot hope to address properly unless we have access to the scientific research in each of these areas,” he adds.

Academic publishers charge UK universities about £200 million (US$318.94 million) a year to access scientific journals, almost a tenth of the £2.2 billion distributed to them by the government, via the funding councils, for the basic running costs of university research.

Despite the recession, these charges helped academic publishers operate with profit margins of 35 percent or more, while getting their raw materials and the work of thousands of taxpayer and -charity-funded scientists free.

The big three publishing houses — Elsevier, Springer and Wiley — own most of the world’s more than 20,000 academic journals and account for about 42 percent of all journal articles published. And, even as library budgets over the past few years in the UK and North America have been flat or declining, journal prices have been rising by between 5 and 7 percent a year or more.

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