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Waiting for Elsevier to fall

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My partner Sally has been working on a mental illness memoir lately, and she keeps digging up really mind-blowing research papers online (like this one involving 45,570 Swedish conscripts, showing that cannibis is almost certainly a risk factor, in young Swedes at least, for later development of schizophrenia). The only trouble is, many of the better research articles Sally digs up are pay-per-view only, and cost a prohibitive $31.50 per PDF, thanks to the robber-barons of Elsevier. (When you need access to scores of these papers, it becomes prohibitive in a big damn hurry.)

The rapacious pricing tactics of Elsevier and other academic publishers (e.g. Springer, Wiley) have been under attack by the scientific research community for years. The folks at Elsevier have been roundly skewered for charging as much as 20019,70 Euro per year for subscriptions to scientific journals. You can find some outrageous sample prices here. The prices are beyond unreasonable. They can't be justified. At all. Ever. Anybody who says they can be justified has obviously never made a living as a periodical publisher before (as I have).

A year ago this month, Fields Award winner Tim Gowers posted a controversial blog slamming Elsevier (and its likes) for its unconscionable journal-pricing practices. Gowers made it known that he would henceforth boycott Elsevier by no longer submitting any of his own research papers to Elsevier-owned journals.

A day after the Gowers blog appeared, one of his readers, Tyler Neylon, set up a web page where other researchers could pledge to boycott Elsevier.

As of today, some 13,225 researchers have joined the Neylon petition. Meanwhile, the Open Access publishing movement (in existence for some time) seems to be approaching critical mass, finally, and it's clear that a Gladwell-style tipping point has either already been reached or soon will be. Once it is, we'll witness the sudden and long-overdue humbling of Elsevier and its cohort. It takes no clairvoyance whatsoever to see that before the dust settles, Elsevier will either be crippled or toppled altogether, never to return to its former stature, much as Wikipedia irreversibly vanquished the once lucrative print edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica.

All I can say is, it's about time. And good riddance.

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