The ‘cost of knowledge petition’ takes a stand against the damaging practices of the world’s largest for-profit publisher, Elsevier.
It’s been signed by almost 20,000 academics, declining to work for Elsevier journals. I’m one of them. I’ve pledged not to referee or do editorial work, and not to publish with Elsevier where choice of journal is mine, and where the decision does not detrimentally affect co-authors.
The need for change in the publishing system has been discussed at length. If nothing else, the extraordinary margins of Elsevier and other traditional publishers are evidence that something isn’t right. The profit motive brings many benefits, but margins of that level don’t emerge in functioning markets. So, one way or another, the publishing system - which is publicly funded – isn't working for its stakeholders.
The issue isn’t just monetary, however. I have taken a stand to signal my dissatisfaction with current norms, and to do my bit to advance change.
Alternatives to Elsevier
Two important Elsevier journals in my field are Cognition and Evolution and Human Behavior. I published in both early in my career, and I cite them regularly. By signing the petition, I’ve cut myself off — but this hasn’t cost me. There are many other suitable journals for my work, so it really isn’t that disruptive.
When discussing with colleagues where to send a manuscript, and I mention my commitment, nobody objects, because the reasons are good and the alternatives are many. So when I see some of my peers still publishing with these journals, I’m somewhat disappointed, and also surprised.
Fixing the system
How should academic publishing actually work? That’s a complex question and I don’t have all the answers. But one idea: why aren’t universities demanding payment for the peer reviewing their employees do for for-profit companies?
Researchers often behave as if we're entrepreneurs running our own small business, but in fact most of us are employees of large organisations, albeit employees with a great deal of autonomy. In any other sector, such as a management consultancy or law, when a for-profit company hires time and labour from another organisation, the hiring institution pays the institution that employs the individual. The fact that doesn’t happen in the university sector has always baffled me.
If this did happen, two issues would be resolved. Firstly, some of the profit margins would come back to universities. Second, universities would begin to encourage their academics to do reviews (they could, for instance, place value on reviewing work in performance appraisals) — and that way publishers and their journals would get more reviewers. Everybody knows that finding good reviewers is hard.
Contributing to change
I don’t have the power to reshape the whole system. Those with the most power are grant reviewers and job panels. The behaviours they value and reward are the ones that people will pursue. Still, I'll reconsider the petition if and when substantive change is achieved, such as if universities achieve their objectives of materially reducing spend with Elsevier, and providing full and immediate open access.
Change has to come from somewhere, and I'm happy to use my influence to support the transition to fairer practices in the publishing sector. That’s why I signed the ‘cost of knowledge petition’ in the first place. It’s a low-cost way of joining forces with many others, including some impressive trailblazers.
Find out more
Currently, 156 UK universities are negotiating a new contract with Elsevier. In these negotiations the sector is seeking to reduce the price of current spend on journal subscriptions and to provide full and immediate open access to UK research. For more information, contact your library director or read about the Elsevier ScienceDirect journals agreement negotiations.