About one month ago, Fields Medalist Tim Gowers complained in a blog post about Elsevier’s publication practices, which inspired the mathematics PhD student Tyler Neylon to launch the campaign “The Cost of Knowledge“. The website makes three main accusations against Elsevier:

  1. They charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.
  2. In the light of these high prices, the only realistic option for many libraries is to agree to buy very large “bundles”, which will include many journals that those libraries do not actually want. Elsevier thus makes huge profits by exploiting the fact that some of their journals are essential.
  3. They support measures such as SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act, that aim to restrict the free exchange of information.

So far, 7434 researchers have signed a petition to publicly declare that they will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate. Most of the signers even specified that they  “won’t publish, won’t referee, and won’t do editorial work” for Elsevier any more. And Elsevier, one of the largest and most profitable publishing houses of the world, seems to begin to falter.

First Elsevier saw the necessity to respond with an open letter entitled “A message to the research community: journal prices, discounts and access“. Again, Gowers took the time to respond point by point. Today, Elsevier publicly announced that it withdraws its support for the Research Works Act. However, this withdrawal is not the end of Elsevier’s fight against open access mandates:

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.

As a researcher, I very much appreciate “The Cost of Knowledge”. But looking at what is going on in other sub-fields of copyright-based industries, I am still worried that in the end the minority of large publishers will succeed in undermining the Internet’s potential for open access to research; specifically, if researchers are not united on this issue, as was the case in “The German Open Access Uproar” in 2009.

Disclaimer: very recently I have reviewed for an Elsevier journal and right now I have one article under review in this journal.