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Monday, March 26, 2012

N.H. scientists join global boycott in debate over ‘open access’ research

David Brooks

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A big industry built on gathering information from paid and unpaid contributors, then packaging it and selling it to customers, is struggling with changes caused by the Internet, leading to disputes and even a global boycott.

It must be the music industry, right? Or maybe book publishing. Hollywood? Newspapers?

Nope. In this case, it’s academic research, and the debate has generated a high-profile boycott of publishing giant Elsevier, a protest that includes at least four academics in New Hampshire.

“I’m an advocate of open information, and academic publishing is changing,” said Jayson Seaman, a professor of kinesiology and education at the University of New Hampshire.

He has pledged not to publish, referee or do editorial work for any Elsevier publication, which includes such top-notch research journals as Cell and The Lancet, because he thinks its actions have placed profit well above science.

“Some of the business practices of large publishing houses, I actually see as damaging the scientific enterprise,” he said.

At least two other UNH researchers and a Dartmouth College grad student are also among more than 8,200 academics worldwide who have signed the pledge to boycott Elsevier publications.

The pledge is more of a sacrifice than it may sound, because publishing your work in prominent journals, and doing related and usually unpaid work such as critiquing other scientist’s papers, is how researchers succeed.

Publish or perish, as they say. In academia, no publication eventually means no job.

Elsevier has been targeted because of specific practices, notably the high cost of its journals, a profit level much higher than the industry average, its aggressive bundling of publications that jacks up the cost for school libraries, and support of a copyright-tightening federal bill called the Research Works Act, the academic equivalent of a draconian online-privacy law called SOPA.

SOPA died after an online protest and so did RWA, although after Elsevier had backed off its support because of the debate. But the boycott is still going on. It began in December when a mathematics professor at Cambridge University in Britain got mad about RWA; his concern quickly spread beyond the math crowd.

As big as it is, however, the boycott is only part of a bigger picture created as the Internet has made it easier for academics to distribute their research online without going through publishing houses – just as it allows bands to avoid record companies and “citizen journalists” to avoid newspapers.

The loose term for the movement is “open access,” implying a shortage of copyright issues and subscription costs that get in the way of finding what you want to know when you want to know it.

It’s not a new idea for science. For two decades, a resource called ArXiv (pronounced “archive,” since the X is the Greek letter chi) has been making research preprints, or early copies, available online at little cost.

Now the push is on to do something similar with peer-reviewed research, which is the heart of all science.

Seaman, for example, is on the editorial team for a free publication called Democracy & Education, which started as a publication for K-12 teachers but is now more of an academic research journal with articles like “Case Study of a Participatory Health-Promotion Intervention in School.” Its articles are peer-reviewed before publication.

“We have made a commitment to making this journal free and online, as the best way to facilitate open conversation about academic topics,” Seaman said. “I see trends going in that direction for many areas.”

He admits the issue isn’t completely straightforward. Democracy & Education succeeds because it is subsidized by the graduate school of education at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, so there are still money issues to put together a good publication, even when using a host of volunteer researchers.

The journal also isn’t printed, which would be far too expensive. Seaman was involved with another journal that spent $16,000 to publish each of its thrice-yearly issues.

Lack of print version is a problem because many people still like their information in “dead tree” form, rather than as pixels on a screen.

“It’s a generational issue,” said the 40-year-old Seaman. “I have issues of journals on my shelf, and still try to find the PDF of articles online. I just use my computer for everything.”

“Some more senior colleagues like having the paper copy. They like the fact that if a graduate student walks into the office, they can hand them a copy of an article or a journal,” he said.

Actually, the issue is even bigger than this, because open access goes beyond print publication. Many schools are putting recorded lectures online to be viewed for free, creating a sort of open-access college education.

It’s far from clear where this is all going. We don’t want science to turn into a sort of high-level Wikipedia, but sharing ideas easily is part of what makes science mankind’s greatest creation since agriculture, so anything that enables such sharing is probably good.

But as we in the newspaper business can attest, even if it’s a good idea, it can be awfully painful at times.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or