Dutch-based Elsevier publishes 250,000 articles a year and its archives contain seven million publications. (iStock)

To publish or not to publish? That is the question medical and science academics are asking after 6,000 of their colleagues boycotted one of the world's largest publishers.

The "Cost of Knowledge" campaign was started by an international group of researchers in January after a blog post by Cambridge University math professor Timothy Gowers. He criticized the Dutch-based publisher Elsevier for charging "very high prices" for access to its articles, using a "ruthless" approach to negotiations with academic libraries and supporting legislation that could hamper the move to more open access to published research.

Since then, thousands of researchers around the world, including several university and government researchers in Canada, have publicly committed to the protest by declaring they will not publish in Elsevier journals, peer review papers for those journals, or do editing work for them.

But others say they don't know what all the fuss is about.

Elsevier publishes 250,000 articles a year and its archives contain seven million publications.

This week a number of Australian academics joined a global protest against the scholarly publishing powerhouse.

"The boycott is saying we are no longer going to provide our services to you for free. We are no longer going to write articles and submit them to your journals, and we are no longer going to review for your journals," says Danny Kingsley an expert in scholarly communication at the Australian National University's Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

The petition's signatories have two complaints: the publisher is charging excessively for its journals, and is pushing to stop free access to taxpayer funded research.

"Well for a start it's just a moral issue that money that [the scienstists are] spending in taxes is having to be double-dipped to prop up a publishing industry which is making extraordinary profits in times where other industries are falling down completely," says Kingsley.

"The feeling has been for some time that the research itself has been paid for by the public purse and the peer-review process and often the editorial process is also being paid for by the public purse in the form of academic salaries; and then the public purse has to again pay to get subscriptions to the work."

In 2010, Elsevier made $1.6 billion for an operating profit margin of 36 per cent.

Andrew Wells from the Council of University Librarians believes Elsevier is being unfairly singled out.

"The practices that Elsevier has both in dealing with authors and in selling scholarly content to libraries are very similar to those used by many other scholarly publishers such as Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis and Springer," he says.

"The real issue here is how the whole scholarly publishing system works and certainly that's a good topic for authors."

Blocking pre-publication

Academics often submit an original research paper to their university before it goes to peer review and is published. University websites typically make these available to the public for free.

Elsevier wants to change that arrangement and has thrown its support behind three bills currently before the US Congress. They could, among other things, prevent universities from holding pre-publication versions of research papers.

It means Australian academics will have to pay to access research that's already been paid for.

Gavin Moodie, the principal policy advisor at RMIT University in Melbourne added his name to the boycott.

"But it has been stronger in its opposition to digital publishing rights and its attempt to close down websites which it claims infringes copyright. I think that's the main distinction from the other big publishers and that's mainly why I signed the petition," says Moodie.

Research at stake

Kingsley says researchers depends on funding from two sources; through block funding to university and grants funding.

"A large portion of what your grant relies on is your track record of publication," she says. "So publication is central, not just to actually having research continue, in that you can read what other people have done and continue with that, but also it's central to your career in terms of being able to have some money so that you can do your research."

Some Australian research bodies such as the National Health and Medical Research Council will change their funding model later this year. They'll mandate that any work they contribute to must be available to the public for free.

With files from CBC News