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A business model in flames?

January 30, 2012

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Could it be that after years of persistent advocacy by librarians and a subset of academics that the disgruntlement with the business practices of Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, et al. might be ready to go mainstream? Protests against journal pricing appearing on the digital pages of Wired, Forbes, and The New York Times might just mean we’ve passed the tipping point. Let’s hope.

This wave of protest seems to have been set in motion by the proposed Research Works Act in the United States, which I mentioned recently. It would be delicious irony if such a crass attempt to make open access mandates essentially illegal set in motion the chain of events that finally got a critical mass of researchers marching away from the same old way of doing things. The subtitle of the RWA ought to make any academic or librarian squirm uncomfortably: “To ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector.” Nothing like showing your cards.

Tim Gowers certainly helped get the latest ball rolling with his public declaration that he would no longer publish in or work with any Elsevier journals in any capacity such as editor or reviewer. There’s now an online petition where other scientists can declare their intent as well. I can only hope that, as does Gowers near the end of his manifesto, these scientists realize that although Elsevier is being singled out in this wave of protests, they are only one of many publishers that adhere to what everyone seems to be calling a broken business model (where, in a nutshell, we all buy back research that we paid for in the first place). It’s not going to do much good if they all bail on Elsevier only to publish with other major publishers.

While this is a welcome step, what comes next will really indicate whether this is the latest brush fire, or whether we’re on the cusp of radical change. Will open access finally become the norm, or will we content ourselves with demonizing one publisher? Given how much of an academic library’s budget goes to a handful of publishers, this is a critical moment for our collective future.

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