A worldwide boycott of one of the largest academic publishers, Elsevier, has drawn support from several ANU researchers who are angry with the company’s pricing strategies and their restrictions on the free publishing of academic work.

To date, thirteen ANU academics have pledged not to publish with or be part of the peer-review process for Elsevier, which produces around 2000 scholarly journals, including titles like The Lancet.

The boycott, which started after a public declaration by mathematician Timothy Gowers, has garnered more than 7300 signatures worldwide.

ANU researcher Greg von Nessi told Woroni that his participation in the boycott was sparked by Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act (RWA), a law currently before the US Congress, which prevents US agencies from requiring publicly funded research from being made freely available.

Elsevier has issued statements in support of the RWA, and has contributed financially to the two Representatives who have spearheaded the bill.

Dr von Nessi, who was born in the United States, says that he is participating in the boycott to draw attention to the way in which big academic publishers like Elsevier have exploited their market position to charge exorbitant prices for access to journals.

Publishers like Elsevier do not pay for the content that they publish; nor do they pay academics to check the work for errors and suggest improvements (a process known as peer review).

For some publications, contributors are paid; however, these payments are generally very small. In signing the petition, ANU anthropologist Dr Michael Young said he had been asked to revise an article in an Elsevier encyclopaedia — a job which would take him one week — for the standard fee of USD $100.

Access to final published products, which has been largely produced with volunteer labour, is often very expensive. A one year subscription to Applied Mathematical Modelling, for example, costs AUD $2,027, while a one year subscription to Biochimica et Biophysica Acta is approximately AUD $19,500.

Elsevier says that prices reflect the value added by their company, including the organisation of the peer review process, typesetting and other administrative tasks.

However the company makes an unusually high return on this administrative work — in 2010-11, the Economist has noted, Elsevier made a profit of over $1 billion on revenue of around $3 billion – a profit margin of 36%.

Dr von Nessi argues that this shows that the academic publishing business is akin to an “extortion scam”. He says that publically-funded research should be freely available to the public and that pricing strategies like Elsevier’s run counter to the culture of academia.

Part of the reason why publishers like Elsevier can afford not to pay academics for their work is that academics desperately need to publish in their journals. Funding and promotions are generally based on publication in highly reputable journals. Dr von Nessi says that young academics in particular are under pressure to publish in “A-star journals”, which means participation in the boycott could adversely affect their career. However, he argued, academics had a responsibility to ensure the free flow of information.

What seems less clear is whether — and how — the boycott will succeed. Its aims are not immediately clear and previous boycotts have broken down over time as academics succumb to the publishing imperative.

However, alternatives to the commercial publishing giants do exist — in some fields, open access journals exist.

In addition, public repositories of published articles are available to academics who wish to make their work available to the public, although this is not always possible for research that has been published in commercial journals.

Dr Danny Kingsley, who is in charge of ANU’s Digital Collection program, says that ANU’s policies towards public access to scholarship is quite progressive.

The ANU’s code of practice strongly encourages (although does not require) that final scholarly work is placed into open access repositories.

The university also maintains a digital repository of work, including PhD theses and other research output, including “grey literature” like working papers and conference papers, which Kingsley says can be just as important as final articles.

She told Woroni that one problem academics face in making their work available is that agreements with publishers can often take away academics’ right to publish their work in publically-accessible repositories.

Some companies, she said, use complex publishing agreements as a deliberate strategy to prevent researchers from releasing their work to the general public.

However, she said, a simple change to government funding rules could require the final, peer-reviewed product of publically-funded research to be made available for free.

This change, she argues, could make around 80% of publically-funded research in Australia quickly available to the public.

Most of the boycotters, including Dr von Nessi, do not expect that this action will lead to the demise of Elsevier or commercial publishing in general.

However, they hope that it will spark a debate about how research is published, and whether the Government should ensure that research funded by taxpayers is made available to the public at large.