The snowballing petition on which scholars pledge to boycott Elsevier is gaining a good deal of attention. There is an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, and this more general article about the future of Elsevier’s business model from Forbes. As of today the boycott pledge has over 2100 signatures.
As the Chronicle article points out, the petition lists three “charges” against Elsevier: their extremely high prices, the practice of “bundling” so that institutions have to buy journals they do not want in order to get the ones they do and hence have less money to buy other things, and corporate support for the Research Works Act and other legislation that would threaten the free flow of information.
While I agree that all of these things are significant problems in the current scholarly communications environment, I have to say that Elsevier is not the only “sinner” guilty of these infractions, or necessarily even the most culpable among commercial publishers. This does not mean I am particularly sympathetic to Elsevier, and I am glad to see the petition for a couple of reasons.
First, the boycott movement is coming from scholars themselves. It is not simply a matter of radical militant librarians (some of my favorite people, btw) who are upset about high prices. This petition represents a growing awareness amongst scholarly authors that traditional publication models not only are no longer the only option, but in fact may be bad choices for those concerned with the overall dissemination of knowledge. It is simply becoming clearer to many scholars that the values they hold are not the same as the ones that commercial publishers are pursuing.
Second, when framed as a divergence of values it is much easier to see that the core issue in this movement is who will control the the changing course of scholarly communications and the scholarly record. It seems less and less acceptable to trust commercial publishers with the responsibility for scholarship now that we no longer will be dependent on the printed artifacts they created. As scholarship becomes digital, we are quite rightly seeking new models of control that serve the needs of scholars first, regardless of the business models that may thereby be left behind.
One of the reasons I do not believe in the “abolish copyright” movement is because I think the control over how a work is disseminated and used by others will continue to remain important to scholarly authors. Copyright desperately needs reform (or else it needs more scholarly authors who use Creative Commons licenses to leverage their economic rights to protect things like attribution, which actually matter to academics) but it is not likely to become irrelevant in the digital environment. Instead, scholars will seek new ways to use the rights that vest in them (not their publishers) to control their works in ways that best serve their own needs and the interests of their particular discipline. Boycotting Elsevier may not bring about that revolution by itself, but it is a step toward demanding that the rights and concerns of scholarly authors themselves actually drive decisions about how scholarship is shared in the digital environment.