Waging war on science publishers

While universities and scientists in Finland and many other countries are struggling with increased cutbacks in their funding, they are faced with similar challenges in making the results of their research known to the academic community and the wider public. Electronic publishing was at one time expected to gradually work towards lower subscription prices for scientific journals, but nothing of the kind has happened. On the contrary, most publishers have put up their prices both for printed books or journals and electronic publications at levels that have forced university libraries to reduce the number of journals they can afford to subscribe to. Neither has this development helped individual scholars who cannot possibly keep up with the recent rise in subscription fees or book prices.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog about the open access movement that had been formed by some language scientists at the Freie Universität, Berlin and at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. By now, this movement has grown world-wide, with over 550 linguists around the world signing to the so-called Berlin Declaration, which calls for an alternative low-cost and open-access publication forum, independent from commercial publishers. Similar open-access channels have been set up by scientists in several other disciplines, including natural and health sciences, where the publishing houses have their biggest markets.

A recent issue of The University World News (15 Nov) reports on a ‘mass exodus’ of the whole team of editors and the editorial board of the prestigious journal Lingua, which was founded in 1947 by North Holland but was in the 1990s taken over by Elsevier. The journal’s editors sent to Elsevier a ‘re-negotiation letter’ in which they demanded that all articles published in Lingua be made open access. Also, the publication fees should be lowered to around US$430, and the authors should be allowed to retain copyright on their articles. Apparently, the negotiations between the resigned editorial team and Elsevier have failed, and the editors are now said to be setting up a new journal, which would be based on the principle of open access.

In Finnish academia, too, scholars have become increasingly concerned about the rising cost of publishing and the whole commercial culture surrounding it. In his column in Helsingin Sanomat (9 Nov), Dr Janne Saarikivi called on Finnish universities to distance themselves from commercial publishers rather than encourage their scientists to place their research articles in ‘top publications’, many of which have been in the forefront of making money with science publishing. Future publishing, according to Saarikivi, takes largely place in completely different forums such as Facebook or even Wikipedia.

Changes are clearly under way in the field of publishing these days, and it remains to be seen how and to what extent commercial publishers will react to the type of protests on the part of the academic community I have described above. Should academic institutions such as universities and their international organisations join the movement for low-cost open access publication, prospects of change would be greatly improved. In the meantime, we just have to keep up the fight as best we can and try to cope with the rising cost of publishing.

Markku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty