A revolution in scientific publishing?

As many of our previous posts have already mentioned, the open access movement is growing steadily. Many academics try to fight companies that sell their scientific knowledge for enormous amounts of money. One of those publishing companies is Elsevier. Its recent increase of subscription fees lead to suggestions of a general boycott of Elsevier’s sources.  Why Elsevier?

This publishing  company has been condemned by many scientists silently before. Now, their protest has grown, stirring discussion also outside academic spheres–may the briefing in last week’s The Economist serve as proof. Elsevier has become a giant in scientific fields with around 2,600 journals while earning a remarkable profit: €862M in 2010 with a profit margin of 36% (The Economist, 2012). Naturally, one could argue the figures are an evidence of doing business well. The profit, however, comes at an expense. First, access to the knowledge published is charged very highly. So much, that many libraries are forced to agree to buy very large “bundles” of journals, which include those that the libraries do not actually want. At the same time, researchers valuing free movement of new ideas are willing to do refereeing and editing for journals without pay. Furthermore, Elsevier’s support for Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)PIPA and the US Research Works Act, go against the ever-growing open access policies more and more scientists favour.

Public Boycott – The Cost of Knowledge” Petition
Timothy Gowers and Tyler Neylon, two mathematicians, have publicly shared their disgreement with Elsevier’s policy exceeding tolerable limits. They call researchers to take a stand against Elsevier declaring either to refrain from submitting articles, reviewing and/or editing to the company. On 9th Feb when this post was written, the petition had 4963 signatures. Given the number of researchers in the world, the number is rather marginal, but certainly this boycott is one of the most salient ones.

What about psychologists and the boycott?
Robert Kurzban,  a co-editor of a reputable psychology journal published by Elsevier, offered a somewhat different perspective on the boycott. As a member of an editorial board of an Elsevier journal, Kurzban was somewhat skeptic over the method saying:

For me, the central issue should be about how we can produce the best scientific papers that reach the broadest audience. Whatever we do should, in my opinion, be in the service of this goal. I say this in part because it seems to me that the goal should not have to do with indulging jealousy. I would rather reach more people with Elsevier making more money than reach fewer people while reducing Elsevier’s profit margins. My business is in communicating scholarship; their business is, well, business. Yes, to the extent that their pursuing their goals interferes with mine, then, sure, we have conflicts to resolve.

Kurzban’s perspective comes from the practical side of a researcher working for one of the central platforms for disseminating information in his subfield (evolutionary psychology) and trying to protect its status. Taking this into account, his words of caution are understandable. But saying that large publishers’ profit margins and their parasitic symbiosis with the communication network of the academia (the journals) are not his problem, is shortsighted. Only taking care of our own front lawns led us to the position where researchers’ work is used by the publishers in a number of steps in the publication process for free, and then sold back to us for a nifty sum. Researchers-ostriches left it to the corporate administration to create policy, which led to this situation in the first place. Decisive action will have to change the status-quo. Is a boycott like this a solution? Probably not. But it’s a start.

In conclusion, while The Economist warns its readers from the academic spring, the editorial board of the Journal of European Psychology Students is hopeful the discussions revolving around the petition as well as the above-mentioned acts will increase support towards open access policies.


Harnad, S. (2012, Feb 2). Pogo: Why are researchers yet again boycotting instead of keystroking. Retrieved from: http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/869-Pogo-Why-Are-Researchers-Yet-Again-Boycotting-Instead-of-Keystroking.html

Kurzban, R. (2012, Feb 6). Elsevier and Evolution of Human Behavior. Retrieved from: http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2012/02/elsevier-and-evolution-human-behavior/

The Economist (2012, Feb 4). Price of information. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/node/21545974



As being part of EFPSA’s JEPS team, Sina Scherer works as JEPS Bulletin’s editor and is currently enrolled in the last year of her Master programme in Work and Organizational Psychology at the Westfälische Wilhelmsuniversität Münster. Her fields of interest cover the areas of Intercultural Psychology, Personality and Organizational Psychology such as Health Psychology.

About the author

Sina Scherer Sina Scherer, studying at University of Münster, Germany, and University of Padova, Italy. I have previously worked as JEPS Bulletin Editor and am active in a NMUN project simulating the political work of the United Nations as voluntary work. I am interested in cognitive neuroscience and intercultural psychology, anthropology and organizational psychology (aspects of work-life balance, expatriation).