Friday, September 07, 2007

Open Access Publishing is Censorship

To take a break from controversies, let's talk about something we can all agree about: Elsevier is evil.

Consider the following business model: people make a product for free (sometimes even contributing money to it) and said product is then sold to them. This is like Kramer's idea of the make-your-own-pizza pizzeria, which actually wasn't so crazy - I certainly like to cook my own meat in a Korean barbecue place or in a restaurant that offer Beijing hot pot - mmh... Beijing hot pot ... - but I am being led astray by the thought of food, and, back to my point, it is also how for-profit publishing of academic journals works. It used to be that academic publishers performed a number of useful tasks, such as typesetting the articles, but now typsetting is done by the authors themselves, and all the work that goes into producing an academic journal, the editing, the peer-reviewing, and of course the actual research and writing-up, are done for free by the academic community. To add insult to injury, it was common for authors to have to give up all rights about their work to the publisher, so that the authors cannot even legally keep a copy of the paper posted on their page except as a link to the publisher's version, often not freely available. (Such policies have changed at many journals because of the increased restlessness of the acadmic community.)

A few years ago, Don Knuth conducted a thourough analysis of the subscription rates of academic journals, and invited fellow editors of the Journal of Algorithms, published by Elsevier, to resign en masse and to create a new journal, the ACM Transactions on Algorithms that, while not free, is published by a not-for-profit professional society and has considerably lower subscription rates. Earlier, the editors of Kuwler's Machine Learning Journal similarly resigned en masse to join a new journal with friendlier policies toward the community. Such actions have become more and more common.

Within theoretical computer science, Elsevier's journal have been often targeted as the worse offenders, with reactions ranging from the mentioned killing of the Journal of Algorithms to the decision to stop publishing special issues of STOC, FOCS and CCC in Elsevier's Journal of Computer and System Sciences. Elsevier's reaction to the community's backlash was also disappointing, with proposals to introduce compensations for editors and reviewers, rather than to reduce subscription fees and to open the online archives. (Except tentatively, like the "experimental" opening of the Information and Computation archives.)

Then there was Elsevier's participation in the international arm trade, which is going to end this year after a strong campaign initiated in the health sciences. (See for example the open letter of the editors of Elsevier's Lancet.)

Now I read that a group of publishers, which includes Elsevier, has hired PR consultant Eric Dezenhall who, according to his wikipedia biography, helped Exxon have Greenpeace audited by the IRS, and helped Enron discredit the initial whistleblower. One of his talking points about for-profit publishing will be that open access publishing equals government censorship. How, exactly? Read the Nature article.