Academic research is behind bars and an online boycott by 8,209 researchers (and counting) is seeking to set it free…well, more free than it has been. The boycott targets Elsevier, the publisher of popular journals like Cell and The Lancet, for its aggressive business practices, but opposition was electrified by Elsevier’s backing of a Congressional bill titled the Research Works Act (RWA). Though lesser known than the other high-profile, privacy-related bills SOPA and PIPA, the act was slated to reverse the Open Access Policy enacted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 that granted the public free access to any article derived from NIH-funded research. Now, only a month after SOPA and PIPA were defeated thanks to the wave of online protests, the boycotting researchers can chalk up their first win: Elsevier has withdrawn its support of the RWA, although the company downplayed the role of the boycott in its decision, and the oversight committee killed it right away.
But the fight for open access is just getting started.
Seem dramatic? Well, here’s a little test. Go to any of the top academic journals in the world and try to read an article. The full article, mind you…not just the abstract or the first few paragraphs. Hit a paywall? Try an article written 20 or 30 years ago in an obscure journal. Just look up something on PubMed then head to JSTOR where a vast archive of journals have been digitized for reference. Denied? Not interested in paying $40 to the publisher to rent the article for a few days or purchase it for hundreds of dollars either? You’ve just logged one of the over 150 million failed attempts per year to access an article on JSTOR. Now consider the fact that the majority of scientific articles in the U.S., for example, has been funded by government-funded agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, NIH, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, NASA, and so on. So while taxpayer money has fueled this research, publishers charge anyone who wants to actually see the results for themselves, including the authors of the articles.