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Duke scholars boycott publisher

Three Duke professors have joined an international boycott of a leading academic publisher.

Nearly 7,000 researchers across different academic fields have decided to no longer publish, edit or review content for Elsevier, an Amsterdam-based publishing company. A group of 34 mathematicians accused Elsevier and other publishers of exploiting the volunteer labor of mathematicians and other academics in order to generate large profits for the company in a statement last week. The leaders of the boycott—called the “The Cost of Knowledge”—consider the pricing system used by the academic journals to be outdated because efforts by universities and new technologies have decreased the cost of production for the journals.

One of the signers, Ingrid Daubechies, James B. Duke professor of mathematics, is also president of the International Mathematical Union and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Daubechies joined the protest only as an individual and not on behalf of the IMU.

Daubechies said she is disenchanted with the business practices of the company, which include lobbying Congress to pass the Research Works Act—an act that would prohibit federal agencies from requiring open access to research, even if the research is publicly funded.

“I wanted to express my frustration for an industry which in which the [mathematics] community puts in a lot of volunteer work but doesn’t benefit from,” she said.

The protest stems from a Jan. 21 blog post by Timothy Gowers, professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, who announced that he would no longer publish his papers in any journals published by the company.

Journals produced by Elsevier include “The Lancet,” “Cell,” the reference book “Gray’s Anatomy” and 20,000 other works.

The mathematicians targeted Elsevier because it is the largest major publisher of academic research, Daubechies noted.

Elsevier often practices bundling, in which libraries must purchase entire collections rather than individual articles or journals, said Roy Weintraub, professor of economics and supporter of the boycott. This practice is beneficial to the company but hurts libraries because it forces them to devote more of their budgets to acquiring journals.

“The increase in journal prices has forced libraries to not purchase books, and as one who write books, I find this appalling,” Weintraub said.

The publisher responded to these claims in a letter Feb. 6 that argued that the libraries have the option of purchasing individual articles or subscribing to specific journals.

“[Perkins does] buy a bundle of journals from Elsevier, and they really don’t sell them individually any more or they sell them at more outrageous prices,” said Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications for Duke Libraries.

Other Duke faculty members and researchers who are also boycotting Elsevier include Laryssa Baldridge, a doctoral candidate in the genetics and genomics program, and Mark Iwen, visiting assistant professor of mathematics.

Smith, who is also a copyright lawyer, noted that Elsevier is not the worst offender in producing extremely expensive journals but said there is still value in the boycott.

“The faculty who write the works are beginning to understand that they need to take control of the rights they have and not simply give them away to companies,” he said.

David Clark, Elseveir’s senior vice president for physics, mathematics, materials sciences, computer sciences and astronomy, could not be reached for comment.

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