The associate editor of the journal Genomics has resigned, stating that he can no longer work for a system that puts profit over access to research. In an article in The Guardian, Winston Hide announced his resignation from “system that provides solid profits for the publisher while effectively denying colleagues in developing countries access to research findings.”
The system he’s speaking of is Elsevier, one of the largest publishers in the world. Headquartered in Amsterdam, this company publishes around two thousand journals, in addition to 20,000 books and reference works. They work with 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, and over half a million authors.
Research Access in Developing Nations
In his article, Hide is not openly critical of his former employer. Instead, he highlights the problem of performing research in developing countries where access to for-profit journals is scarce. Having worked for 10 years at a university in South Africa, he notes that researchers are often forced to devote big chunks of their budgets to purchasing a single subscription. When this isn’t possible, their mode of operation is the e-mail request, “Will you please send me a PDF?”
It is obviously a significant challenge for researchers in developing nations to perform competitive research without access to most of the literature.
Elsevier’s Response to Criticism
Elsevier defended its position in February this year with its open letter to the research community. This was in response to an online petition that was “putting forward some serious negative judgments about Elsevier.” In their letter, the publisher responds on a few points, noting that:
- The cost of downloading articles has never been cheaper than it is today, approximately one-fifth of what it was 10 years ago. But what (besides oil) hasn’t seen a cost reduction thanks to the Internet?
- Libraries are never forced to take bundled packages; they have number of subscription options, from single-article to journal to collection. Most that opt for larger packages, Elsevier claims, do so to get bigger discounts. This is a fancy way of saying that hey, there are lots of ways that you can pay us for access.
- While committed to the principle that the public should have access to the output of publicly funded research, Elsevier opposes “potentially harmful” government laws that could undermine the sustainability of the peer-review publishing system. In other words, “We agree with your idea, but don’t make us go along with it.”
There are a few tidbits in Elsevier’s letter that I find interesting. First, they tout their eight open-access journals as evidence of their commitment to research access – but that’s 8 out of 2,000 journals, or 0.4%. Second, they write that “Being criticized by even one researcher, let alone all the signatories of the petition, is difficult for a company whose reason for being is to serve the research community.”
I thought that their reason for being was to make money.
Genomics, China, and the Future
On Twitter, Nick Loman (@pathgenomenick) quipped that the most surprising part of the article was that there’s a journal named Genomics. I admit this journal gets a bit of lenience from me because it’s the first place where my name appeared on an authorship list in the scientific literature: way back in 2005, when members of the SNP Consortium led by my former P.I., Raymond D. Miller, published a pre-HapMap high-density SNP map of the human genome.
Indeed, Genomics has fallen somewhat from prominence; the articles seem to have narrower interest every year. Basically, it’s the place you can publish your obscure model organism’s draft genome. Intriguingly, Hide mentions in his article that the majority of manuscripts he saw at Genomics now come from China. Are these submissions that have been turned down elsewhere? Or, and I think this may be more likely, are most biomedical journals being gradually overwhelmed with submissions from the Middle Kingdom?
A colleague of mine said that Hide’s actions probably won’t change anything. Big companies like Elsevier are in business to make money. The concept of open-access, while a noble idea and lauded by many, has yet to really take hold in the research community. There must be some middle ground, though. It seems foolish that the U.S. and other western nations donate billions of dollars in foreign aid to the developing world, yet our massive corporations seem unable or unwilling to offer any special treatment to the struggling researchers who work there.
They need to take a lesson from Google: it is possible to make money without doing evil.
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