Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

Cost of knowledge

Chinese research authors are trying to encourage a boycott of journal publisher Elsevier, which they say charges far too much for access to academic papers

Returning from an international conference held in Washington Yuan Yaxiang , one of the mainland's best-known mathematicians, felt bad.

"I have been ripped off," he said in an interview, still bitter more than two months after the meeting. "For all these years I have not realised it, and still most scientists in China have not realised it - and that hurts me most. It is time for Chinese scientists to stand up, unite and say no to this scandalous practice."

Yuan, 52, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was not nagging about overpriced hotels or substandard airline food but that some of the world's biggest publishers of academic journals, including Elsevier and Springer, had charged "absurdly" high prices for academic journals whose contents were written, reviewed, edited and mostly purchased by academics themselves.

"If you are a mathematician in Guizhou (the mainland's poorest province) and you are interested in one of my recent papers, you will need to download it from the website of the journal's publisher. The price for a three-page article can exceed US$30, which can be more expensive than a 300-page textbook," Yuan said.

"The money would not come to me - my salary is paid by the taxpayers of China. The money would not go to the journal's referees or editors, who are mathematicians just like me and who work as volunteers. The money goes to the publisher, whose contribution in this process cannot be justified by the prices they charge.

"Researchers are ripped off, taxpayers are ripped off and knowledge, which should be freely available, has been fenced in and become a cash cow of a few big publishers."

Yuan said that as the world's economy was heading into recession, the prices charged for academic and scientific journals was going up. Even researchers in emerging economies such as China, which had rapidly growing research funds, were feeling the burden of having to subscribe to such journals. Most of them had no idea why the prices were so high.

Like most scientists on the mainland, Yuan knew little about the business of academic publishing in the West until recently. Earlier this year, after facing budget cuts amid economic recession and the soaring prices of research journals, some of the world's leading mathematicians started a movement, "the cost of knowledge", to boycott Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers.

Influential academics, including the Fields medal winners Timothy Gowers, Wendelin Werner and Terence Tao, decided to challenge the paradox of low publishing costs and high journal prices with a call on researchers around the world to stop submitting, refereeing or editing papers for journals published by Elsevier, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch company Reed-Elsevier.

Reed-Elsevier is listed in London and the Netherlands and last year reported net income of £767 million (HK$9.3 billion) on turnover of £6 billion. Elsevier, its Amsterdam-headquartered subsidiary, says on its website that it employs more than 7,000 people in 24 countries, and claims "a global community of 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, 300,000 reviewers and 600,000 authors".

It also claims to "provide free or low-cost access to science and health information in the developing world" and that "we have fostered the peer-review process for more than 130 years … We publish around 2,000 journals and close to 20,000 books and major reference works."

Gowers and his colleagues said they chose Elsevier for their campaign as "a good initial focus" for their discontent against all commercial publishers.

At the mathematicians' conference in Washington, Yuan found that the hottest topic in tea breaks was not the new proof of an old maths conjecture, but "the cost of knowledge" campaign. A friend of his from Germany explained in detail the large profits that big publishers extracted from the research community and Yuan became one of the first Chinese scientists to join the movement.

As soon as he returned to China, the former head of the academy's Institute of Computational Mathematics and Scientific/Engineering Computing began spreading the message at conferences and gatherings.

This week, the movement's website had more than 12,500 signatories, dozens of them from China, many of whom said that they had signed up in response to Yuan's call.

Wen Zaiwen , associate professor of mathematics with Shanghai Jiaotong University, said: "I attended a seminar and academic Yuan's speech on the boycott Elsevier movement that left me with a very deep impression.

"I was disturbed by the knowledge that big publishers charge readers so much for our academic works, and my anger doubled after I went to the website and read overseas colleagues' comments on the publisher's large profit and extravagance.

"Boycotting Elsevier might cause some inconvenience, but I signed my name without hesitation because it is the right thing for a scientist to do."

At least 20 academics from Hong Kong universities have also signed up to the website.

The Chinese scientists' participation in the boycott has drawn a response from Elsevier. In an e-mail, Tom Reller, Elsevier's vice-president of global corporate relations, said it hoped to improve communications with Chinese researchers to reach mutually shared objectives.

"And we can do this in China, a particularly important market for Elsevier - the largest publisher of Chinese research output," he wrote. "The number of signatories to the boycott is actually relatively small within the context of the global research community, but even one is too many for us.

"We see a future of incremental change while retaining the ability to charge fairly negotiated prices for our value-added products and services, but accept that there are growing numbers of advocates that expect more rapid change to business models and greater free access to information," he added.

Reller said that among all papers Chinese authors published internationally, about one third were published with Elsevier journals.

"From 2005 to 2010, we doubled our Chinese-based editors and editorial board members to approximately 600 editors and 1,300 editorial board members," he wrote. "In addition, Chinese researchers gain great access to research articles from our flagship database ScienceDirect, the usage of which from China has been growing at 20 per cent each year over the past 10 years."

The Chinese scientists' complaints raised eyebrows at large publishers because China has surpassed the United States and has become the world's largest producer of academic papers. Though most of the papers are not considered top quality, the large quantity means business opportunities for every major academic publisher.

Mathematicians started the movement but now other disciplines have voiced their support.

Professor Wu Biao , a physicist with Peking University's International Centre for Quantum Materials, said that he joined the movement after receiving a notice from the university library earlier this year informing him that owing to the rising prices of academic journals and budget constraints, the physics department would need to cut a number of journals to which it had subscribed.

Peking University is one of China's most prestigious, with research funding envied by other schools on the mainland.

"If Peking University is feeling the pressure, other schools must have had their backs broken already," Wu pointed out.

Chinese physicists contributed more than a third of the papers published on some Elsevier academic journals, he said.

"If we all join the boycott we will not only force Elsevier to lower their prices but force other publishers such as Springer and Wiley to follow suit," added Wu.

"Most Chinese scientists agree with me on the principle of the boycott movement, but most of them don't want to stand out or make a noise because they have no confidence in their individual power," he said.

"But if we can hold a nationwide meeting on the subject, I am sure that we will achieve an explosive growth of participants. I just hope that someone can organise such an event someday soon."

However, Professor Chen Guoqiang , a biologist at Tsinghua University's School of Life Sciences, said he doubted many mainland scientists would join the movement because of practical concerns.

"Most open-access journals require a fee on submission. In comparison, most journals published by Elsevier and other big publishers do not charge the author anything.

"They just charge relatively higher prices on subscribers, mostly libraries," he said.

"Most Chinese scientists are not willing to dip into their own shallow pockets to publish a paper."

Some Elsevier journals, such as , are so influential that most scientists in the field are unable to avoid or ignore them, Chen added.

Elsevier says that Chinese scientists joining the boycott had been misled by some flawed assumptions about its business.

The company now publishes 23 open-access journals and provides author-funded options in more than 1,200 others, according to Reller.

He says the publisher offers Chinese scientists more services than just publishing their papers.

"There are legions of new scientists entering their careers that benefit from free author workshops that we provide and by publishing in our journals.

"Elsevier journals are attractive to Chinese authors because of their impact and reach.

"The impact factor of a journal is a key criterion when selecting where to submit a paper and Chinese researchers are increasingly evaluated and promoted based on where they publish versus how much they publish - quality versus quantity," he wrote.

"Open access journals levy an author publication charge (APC) that in many cases cannot be paid by Chinese authors. 'Traditional' journals are therefore essential options for authors in nations where a US$1,500 or US$3,000 APC is simply not possible financially.

"Libraries in many Chinese schools have very small budgets. Because of this, our pricing policy in China is similar to other developing nations whereby access is provided to all key institutions at very heavily discounted prices to ensure affordability," wrote Reller.