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Elsevier's backpedalling not stopping scientist strike

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Dutch publishing house Elsevier is facing increasing pressure from the scientific community, with the company's 2,000 journals now being blacklisted by over 8,600 academics.

In January, following an angry blog post by British mathematician Tom Gowers, academics started to sign a public petition refusing to submit, edit, or approve articles for publication in Elsevier's extensive stable of titles, which includes The Lancet and Cell.

The petition protested against the high prices Elsevier charges for its journals, its practice of requiring subscribers to buy bundles of publications rather than individual subscriptions, and the company's support for the Research Works Act (RWA) in the US Congress, which would close access to publicly-funded research.

The movement quickly caught on with academics, and within days over a thousand of them had signed up. Elsevier relies on academics to submit papers for publications, as well as others to proof, edit and peer-review research, so the strike struck at the heart of the publisher's business model.

Elsevier has turned down repeated requests for interview from El Reg on the issue, but in February the campaign brought an official response from the company: "While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself," the company said in a statement on February 27. "We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders."

Entirely coincidentally, we must assume with tongue firmly in cheek, the RWA legislation was dropped shortly afterwards by its sponsors, representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif). This latter sponsor was surprising, since Issa was at the forefront of moves to defeat the infamous SOPA and PIPA legislation.

EL Reg can only assume that he saw which way the wind was blowing was stricken with an attack of conscience.

However, the backdown by Elsevier and Washington seems to have had little effect. The strikers have struck off the RWA section on the petition-site's demands, but their numbers are growing every day and the cause has inspired moves in Australia to completely open up research based on public funds.

Elsevier has said that it is open to suggestions on the publishing front, and has helpfully suggested that scientists might like to pay it to get their research printed. This seems unlikely to garner much support, but in the meantime the company is losing the workforce it relies on for its fat profit margins, and the strike shows no sign of weakening. ®

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