It's now widely recognized that the extreme demands of SOPA/PIPA catalyzed a new activism within the Net world, epitomized by the blackout effected by sites like Wikipedia on January 18. But as Techdirt has reported, SOPA and PIPA are not the only attacks by the copyright industries on the digital commons: another is the Research Works Act (RWA), which attempts to remove the public's right to read the articles written by tax-funded researchers in open access
But, like SOPA/PIPA, RWA may have been an intellectual land-grab too far. It has provoked a rebellion by academics that might provide the final push needed to move academic publishing from its current mode, dominated by hugely-profitable corporations that require payment for most of their output, to one based around open access journals, with smaller profits, but whose articles are freely available online to all.
Things started when Peter Suber, who is widely regarded as one of the unofficial leaders of the open access movement, pledged on January 7 not to work with any publisher that accepted the Association of American Publishers' position supporting RWA. But it was a blog post two weeks later by the British mathematician and Fields Medallist (think Nobel Prize of mathematics) Tim Gowers that provided the spark for the explosion of anger that followed:
I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.He singled out the giant publisher Elsevier (disclosure: I used to work for one of its sister companies) for three main reasons. First, for its scholarly journals' high prices; secondly, for its use of "bundling" -- forcing libraries to sign up for large collections of journals, whether they wanted them all or not; and finally, because of its support for SOPA, PIPA -- and RWA.
Gower's gesture was born of personal exasperation, but one that he knew many others shared. The question was how to mobilize people so that their collective action would have an effect. He wrote:
It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so, and that it would be a good way of making that stand public.Within a couple of days, Tyler Neylon had set up just such a site, "The Cost of Knowledge: Researchers taking a stand against Elsevier", which repeats the three main objections that Gowers raised, and invites people to refrain from working with Elsevier. At the time of writing, nearly 2,000 academics from a wide range of disciplines have pledged their support for the boycott.
This is certainly the most visible revolt in recent years against the exorbitant profits of companies like Elsevier, and their tight control of the academic publishing process, but it's not the first or the biggest. Back in 2000, right at the dawn of open access, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was created with the same aim of making research more widely available. To achieve this, the three founders of PLoS circulated an open letter calling for "the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form", which contained the following passage:
To encourage the publishers of our journals to support this endeavor, we pledge that, beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have publishedNearly 34,000 scientists signed that letter, but only a handful of publishers committed themselves to making their articles available as the letter requested; worse, few signatories followed through with their promised boycotts of the publishers who refused. Will things be any different this time, in the post-SOPA world?