Duke Scholars Join Boycott Against Elsevier

Daubechies is one of the latest to speak out against the practices of large academic publishers

February 14, 2012
Ingrid Daubechies
Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies is among nearly 6,000 scholars boycotting Elsevier journals. Image courtesy of Ingrid Daubechies, Duke.

Durham, NC - One of Duke's most prominent scientists has joined a protest against a leading academic publisher, adding her name to a growing list on campus and at universities elsewhere.

Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies says she will no longer publish, referee or do editorial work for the Amsterdam-based academic publisher Elsevier. She joins biologists Laryssa Baldridge and Eric Butter, mathematician Mark Iwen, economist E. R. Weintraub and other Duke faculty members in publicly boycotting the publisher.

They and nearly 6,000 other scholars around the world seek to draw attention to what they consider Elsevier's unfair business model and restrictions on the free exchange of information.

Daubechies, who heads the International Mathematical Union (IMU) and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said too many mathematicians and other scientists are "utterly frustrated by the enormous prices libraries are being charged for journals, when the content, the peer review that ensures quality and the scientific part of the administration are all provided by our community itself, completely or mostly on a volunteer basis."

Estimating she has volunteered several months of her own time during her career working with mathematical journals, Daubechies said she and other scholars regard reviewing and editing articles as a professional responsibility.

She also acknowledged the need for commercial publishers to make a profit. But "we do not agree with the present way in which our efforts are harvested in order to generate Elsevier's and other publishers' large profit margins," she said, noting that she was speaking as an individual, not as the president of the IMU. The organization has not yet made an official statement on the issue.

Elsevier produces The Lancet, Cell and about 2,000 other academic journals. In 2010, it reported revenues of about $3.2 billion, with a profit margin of about 36 percent. University libraries often pay Elsevier hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars annually for online journal subscriptions. Daubechies said the profits are excessive at a time when many academic institutions are hurting financially and need funds to pay for financial aid and other purposes.

She recently joined The Cost of Knowledge protest in the mathematics and science community launched Jan. 21 by Timothy Gowers of the University of Cambridge. The researchers have targeted Elsevier because of its high subscription fees and practice of bundling lesser journals with valuable ones, Daubechies said. They also object to Elsevier's support of the Research Works Act, a proposed U.S. federal law that prohibits agencies such as the National Institutes of Health from freely sharing articles written by its grant recipients, whose research was funded by taxpayers.

"We and many scientists in other disciplines welcome the free access to our research results. Many of us voluntarily make our papers freely accessible," she said.

The company responded to the protest in a statement, saying "While some of the facts about Elsevier are being misrepresented, the depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously. We're listening to all the concerns expressed and redoubling our substantial efforts to make our contributions to that community better, more transparent, and more valuable to all our partners and friends in the research community."

Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications at Duke's Perkins Library and a copyright lawyer, said Daubechies and the other mathematicians and Duke faculty have joined a fight that has been under way in various academic fields for more than a decade.

The main issue, aside from cost, is copyright, or who owns the work. Authors of academic papers have long been expected to turn over copyright of their work to a publishing company for it to be printed and circulated, Smith said. They only receive limited rights to the material, sometimes leaving them unable to publish their findings on their own or on their institution's websites.

"A graduate student, for example, might publish a paper in a journal, use that information in her thesis, but then have to remove sections related to the published work in the library's open-access record of her dissertation," Smith said.

Academic protests, like this new one initiated in the mathematics community, show scholars are becoming more aware of what is best for them in terms of copyright and free access to their work, he said. These efforts, he added, may accelerate the transition to new publishing solutions ranging from open-access journals such as the Public Library of Science to entirely new systems for peer reviewing and publishing digital work. The new systems would benefit not only the academic community but also the public, which pays for most of this research in the first place, Smith said.

No matter what happens in the mathematics community, this latest front in the continuing battle over academic publishing will lead more scholars at Duke and other universities to rethink the ownership of their work, according to Smith.

"Boycotting Elsevier and other academic journals won't bring about complete change to academic publishing, but it is a first step toward a new publishing ecosystem controlled by scholars."