Amid boycott, Elsevier backtracks on research bill

One of the largest academic publishers in the world has withdrawn its support from a controversial U.S. bill that could restrict public access to published, publicly-funded research, following a boycott by thousands of researchers around the world.

Journal publisher still opposes current U.S. rules mandating access to taxpayer-funded research

One of the largest academic publishers in the world withdrew its support Monday from a controversial U.S. bill, the Research Works Act, that critics feel would restrict public access to published, publicly-funded research.

The change of heart by Dutch publisher Elsevier follows a boycott of its journals and publishing ventures by thousands of researchers around the world.

More than 7,400 researchers, including several in Canada, publicly declared they would not publish in Elsevier journals or peer review papers for those journals, or do editing work for them as part of a "Cost of Knowledge" boycott launched in January. The researchers normally provide those services for free to scieintific journal publishers.

Research Works Act

The Research Works Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in December, states:

No federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that

  1. Causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or
  2. Requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

Elsevier's sponsorship of the bill had been cited as one of the reasons for the boycott, along with: Its support for other bills that could limit open access to published research; the company's high subscription prices; and business practices that force academic libraries to buy large "bundles" of journals they don't want.

Elsevier said in a statement Monday that it hopes its withdrawal of support for the U.S. bill "will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders."

The Research Works Act, sponsored by New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat, and California congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, would ban federal funding agencies from stipulating that the published results of the research they fund must be made freely accessible to the public within a certain amount of time.

Currently, the U.S. National Institutes of Health require the published research it funds to be freely available within 12 months after publication. Similarly, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research require that all research papers generated from the projects they fund are freely accessible through the publisher's website or an online repository within six months of publication.

In its statement Monday, Elsevier emphasized that it continues to oppose "government mandates" with regard to academic publishing. It argues government rules don't recognize the different economic models used by journals in different fields and that these rules can "undermine" the journals "that serve an essential purpose in the research community."

Elsevier publishes 250,000 articles a year and its archives contain seven million publications. In 2010, the company made $1.6 billion and had an operating profit margin of 36 per cent.

Some researchers have argued that the publisher is being unfairly singled out by the boycott, since many other journal publishers have similar policies and business practices.