A scientific “revolution”… perhaps

In January, Tim Gowers, Cambridge mathematician and Fields Medal winner, wrote on his blog that he would no longer submit to or review articles for academic journals published by Elsevier.

As this article, Academic Spring: how angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution, notes, three publishing houses—Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley—own over 40% of all academic journals. Although the budgets for university and college libraries have been flat or declined during the recession, the rates these publishers have demanded for access to their journals has increased 5-7% per year, contributing nicely to their rather healthy 30-35% profit margins.

As a result of Gowers’s blog, a petition–The Cost of Knowledge–was started and has since garnered over 9,000 signatures from people who have similarly pledged to refrain from publishing, refereeing, and/or doing editorial work for journals that do not provide free access online.

It seems difficult to argue that the current system of academic journals benefits academia or the dissemination and  production of knowledge nearly as much as it benefits publishers (who, in the U.K., earn £200 million from colleges and universities or about 10% of the £2.2 billion the government provides in funding to those institutions).

The question is whether a movement such as this one can gain enough momentum to change the system.

It is not a “revolution” that can be propelled by assistant professors who feel compelled to “publish or perish,” but it is one that can be led by tenured professors, particularly leaders in their fields, simply by opting to make their work available only through free, peer-reviewed, online academic journals.

Hopefully that will happen.

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